Barking Mad

Is This Tea Partier’s Bid to Become House Majority Leader Crazy? Cunning? Or a Bit of Both?

Raul Labrador has almost no experience in Congress and a mutinous habit. Ordinarily, that would make a run for House Majority Leader impossible. But these aren’t ordinary times.

Tom Williams/Getty

Before Raul Labrador made his run for House Majority Leader official Friday afternoon, he had already been dismissed as a non-viable long shot. For the sophomore representative from western Idaho, this kind of disrespect was expected. As he challenges California’s establishment-endorsed Kevin McCarthy in the election to replace Eric Cantor as the House’s number two Republican, Labrador finds himself in familiar territory—challenging the perceived order of things and earning the fear and loathing of his own party elders.

In January 2013, Labrador was a ring-leader in the quiet plot that convinced 13 ideological conservatives to abstain from voting to reelect John Boehner to Speaker of the House. For that stunt, party leaders in congress punished the insurgents in an act of revenge known as The Purge; four rebel conservatives were stripped of their assignments to the House Budget and Banking committee.

Labrador, for his central role in the failed mutiny, drew the ire of fellow Idaho Republican, eight-term representative Mike Simpson, who told the hometown Idaho Statesman that the young upstart had permanently trashed his own name in his own party.

“Once you lose that credibility it’s gone and it’s gone forever,” Simpson said at the time. In response, Labrador called Simpson a “bully” and “an old-school legislator who went to Washington, D.C., to compromise.”

A year and a half after the botched mutiny and that Idaho family spat, Labrador’s credibility is once again on the line. And Simpson is again reminding his fellow Republicans how party leaders like Boehner and recently deposed Majority Leader Eric Cantor have been forced, whenever Labrador’s Tea Party or Liberty Republicans throw their periodic ideological tantrums, to be the adults in the room.

“In leadership, you have to govern,” Simpson told the Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey this week. “You can’t be a member of the Vote-No-and-Hope Caucus,” he said in a thinly veiled attack of Labrador’s ideological zeal.

The two men are Idaho’s only House delegates, and while they maintain public civility, few congressional relationships are more emblematic of the GOP’s festering schism. It’s a divide that the establishment would like to heal, but, as Cantor’s historic loss this week proved, continues to deepen.

“Washington Republicans can bury what happened last Tuesday with piles of excuses,” said Michigan Republican Justin Amash, part of the libertarian wing of the party. “But if they view [Cantor’s loss] Tuesday as an anomaly, they do so at their own peril.” In the young caucus’ attempted putsch last January, Amash committed the most brazen act of disrespect by casting a lone vote for Labrador to replace Boehner as speaker. At the time, it seemed like a quixotic gesture, but Amash anticipated the battle of succession that will play out next week on Capitol Hill.

Today’s announcement also marked the first time Labrador has been so up-front about his long-assumed ambition. By 2013, his third year in congress, he had appeared on Meet the Press a half-dozen times. He rose to national prominence as a key Hispanic Republican in the lower chamber’s bi-partisan group of eight negotiating immigration reform. (Labrador, a member of the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, grew up in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas with his single working mother.) He dropped out of those negotiations after insisting that new legal immigrants to the U.S. should not qualify for government-subsidized health insurance.

Labrador’s political career has been defined by exceeding expectations. In 2010, he scored two consecutive upsets on his path to Washington. First, he beat the establishment—and Sarah-Palin-picked—military veteran Vaughn Ward, a decorated Marine who imploded in spectacular fashion after an Idaho grassroots conservative posted a YouTube video showing Ward ripping off Barack Obama’s 2004 “One America” speech. Following that, Labrador was an underdog again in the general election against Blue Dog Democrat incumbent Walt Minnick, an Idaho Democrat so conservative that he earned an early endorsement from the Tea Party Express. Labrador, despite raising less money than Minnick and earning minimal support from his own state party, prevailed in one of that year’s more unusual upsets.

This week, Labrador pulled on that experience to explain why he is running a race few believe he can win.

“I was stunned when Eric Cantor lost his primary election,” Labrador said in a statement today. “Eric is a good friend and I have tremendous respect for him. But the message from Tuesday is clear—Americans are looking for a change in the status quo.”

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It remains unclear, however, whether the unrest among conservative voters in Virginia’s 7th congressional district has percolated up to a majority of House Republicans. The June 19th vote to replace Cantor is not expected to go Labrador’s way. As Robert Costa explained it, the events have “left the tea party in the paradoxical position of being powerful enough to take out a majority leader in historic fashion, but powerless to replace him.”

On Friday afternoon, one Labrador aide told the Daily Beast that this time is different. “Throw out the old math. It’s a whole new ball game.”

Amash, who put out an early public endorsement of Labrador Friday afternoon, pointed to Cantor’s loss as proof that the country is ready for the kind of drastic political change that the Idaho Republican represents.

“We can’t respond to a stunning loss by giving a pat on the back and promotion to the same team,” the Michigan libertarian said. “It’s time for someone new, someone conservative, someone who will put forward a fresh agenda, and someone we know is a proven and talented spokesman. That man is Raul Labrador.”