Raul Labrador, fresh off his failed bid to become Republicans’ House majority leader, doesn’t know what he’s going to do next, but that doesn’t seem to bother him. In terms of his job as a congressman from Idaho’s first district, it’s back to regular-scheduled programming for the sophomore lawmaker.
“You know, I don’t have my sights set on anything,” said Labrador from his small office in a corner of the Longworth House building. “I didn’t come here to be in leadership. I came here to make a difference, and if I can make a difference without being in leadership, I would be very happy with that.”
Labrador challenged Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy for the job of majority leader, which is being vacated by Eric Cantor at the end of July. In what can only be described as a “whirlwind,” the native Puerto Rican threw his hat in the race less than a week before the election was set to take place.
Now things seem to be getting back to normal. His press secretary, Todd Winer, chuckles when I bring up what must have been a hectic past few days. “It was crazy,” he concedes before motioning to his boss, “but he did most of the work.”
When Labrador made his sudden announcement, he said at the time, “I want a House leadership team that reflects the best of our conference.” The message from Cantor’s stunning loss was clear, he added. “Americans are looking for a change in the status quo.”
The American people may have been looking for a change, but a majority of House Republicans weren’t. It could have been a shining moment for the Tea Party movement that swept Labrador and so many others into office in 2010. The headlines would have written themselves: “Four Years After Tea Party Wave, Movement Gets One of its Own in Leadership.”
But you won’t see Labrador dwelling on his loss or over-analyzing its implications. In fact, the truth seems to be the exact opposite. The vote wasn’t even one full week ago, but it may as well have been one year ago. Labrador is moving on.
Not that he has any other choice. The vote for majority leader is cast by secret ballot, so it’s hard to know how many votes Labrador garnered in his somewhat quixotic bid, though he's confident that he did draw at least one solid block of disaffected conservatives, including friends Justin Amash of Michigan and Thomas Massie of Kentucky.
For the lawmakers in Labrador’s corner, Cantor’s primary loss was intended to send a specific message to House leadership. “There was no acknowledgement that something needed to change in Washington,” said Massie of the leadership conference after Cantor’s defeat. “They would like to completely ignore that the voters were sending a message.”
But like it or not, the majority of his colleagues voted for the other guy. McCarthy, an affable Californian known for his people skills, rose through the ranks with more ease than probably anyone in recent memory. It’s easy to forget that he has only been in Congress since 2006.
For his part, Labrador seems hesitant to dissect his challenge to the establishment choice. “I learned a lot of things about how the process works,” he says. “I learned a lot of things about my fellow members of Congress and it was nothing but a positive experience.”
“I want to be able to build on that,” he adds. “You know, when I was in the Idaho legislature, I was considered a leader...without having a single title other than state representative.”
He has a point. Plenty of lawmakers show leadership without being anointed into the upper echelon. Paul Ryan comes to mind. When it became clear that he wouldn’t win the majority leader race, Labrador demurely called on all his colleagues to vote for McCarthy to make his election unanimous.
Simply put, it’s not that Labrador entered the race, but how he played the game that brought him political capital. And while Labrador is mum on any future plans, he won’t be weighed down by his lack of title. For now, “Congressman” is good enough.
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