WASHINGTON — For one exhausting week, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho wore a game face and carried the banner for the conservative insurgents in the House Republican Conference.
Labrador’s bid to succeed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who suffered a stunning primary election loss and will soon vacate one of the most powerful political jobs in the nation’s capital, was nothing short of audacious.
An upstart second-termer who was elected in the 2010 tea party wave that carried 87 new Republicans into the House of Representatives, Labrador hadn’t been around long enough to get to know all of his 232 colleagues.
On Thursday, House Republicans voted by secret ballot to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California instead as their leader.
McCarthy is a key inside player, a trusted member of the party leadership who had Cantor’s backing and whose political action committee had spread $2.3 million in campaign donations among Republican House candidates since 2010. He told reporters days ago that he already had the 117 votes needed for victory.
But Labrador might walk away with political gains, too, not the least of which is to further raise a national profile that he’s been cultivating as a favorite on Sunday TV news talk shows _ a voice of a bloc of 60 to 80 disaffected House conservatives whose votes are vital for the party to pass legislation when it is opposed by Democrats.
“If you vote for the status quo,” Labrador told his colleagues at a candidate forum Wednesday, “you will prove that we are still not listening. We will break our pledge and with that we may lose the ability to regain control of the Senate and eventually win the presidency.”
But as Speaker John Boehner led a triumphant McCarthy before a throng of reporters and television cameras Thursday after the vote, Labrador ducked out of a congressional hearing room where the balloting was conducted. He was nowhere to be found in two visits to his fifth-floor office in a back corner of the House Longworth Building.
His press spokesman, Todd Winer, said he would give no interviews Thursday.
Freedom Works, a libertarian group that beckoned its 6.5 million members this week to urge their representatives to support Labrador, praised his “impressive performance,” calling it “indicative of a growing liberty caucus that is ready to make . . . individual liberty and fiscal responsibility a priority in the House.”
A 46-year-old Mormon who is the son of a single mother, Labrador spent 15 years as an immigration attorney. After spending four years in the Idaho state House, he ran for Congress in 2010, in the aftermath of the nation’s financial crisis and captured Idaho’s First Congressional District, one of the nation’s most conservative.
He set himself apart almost from the moment he arrived on Capitol Hill, refusing to support Boehner’s election as speaker. Since then, he has taken staunchly conservative positions on fiscal issues, and was known to clash with McCarthy when the whip pressed for his votes.
But Labrador also was a member of a “group of eight” House and Senate members who made an ill-fated push for a compromise on immigration reform.
When Cantor lost last week, Labrador tried for three days to persuade veteran conservative Reps. Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Jim Jordan of Ohio to challenge McCarthy. When they declined, perhaps recognizing the long odds, he jumped in last Friday.
“I think it takes a lot of courage to step up,” said Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a good friend who urged Labrador to run.
At Wednesday’s candidate forum, Labrador said he was “running not against anyone, but for everyone.” He stressed that he wants all members “to feel they are relevant again.”
Working until 11 p.m. in the week-long race, he set a goal of dialing up every member of the Republican conference. But the Washington Examiner quoted other Republicans as saying that Labrador staffers had phoned seeking those members’ cell phone numbers, suggesting that Labrador lacked relationships with many of them.
While he is not formally a member of the Tea Party caucus, which rarely if ever meets, Labrador counted on support from the more-active Liberty Caucus of about 24 to 30 of the party’s most conservative House members. But his support for a guest worker program for agricultural workers cost him votes on Thursday from some conservatives seeking a hard line toward undocumented workers.
Massie, among a rump group of about 10 hard-core Republicans who volunteered to try to round up votes for him, said the ultra-conservative wing has been disaffected in part because “things have been snuck through on a voice vote that wasn’t announced,” especially when the leadership lacked support to win on a roll call vote.
He said most members had left the chamber and some were on airplanes when a motion to repeal part of the Stock Act, which banned insider trading by members of Congress and their staffs passed by voice vote.
The irony, Massie contended, is that Boehner’s position would have been “solidified” with Labrador as majority leader, “because I think you finally have that balance where the 80 most conservative members of the House, who don’t feel represented in leadership, would be represented.”
Instead, Labrador will remain a voice of the insurgency.