As Rep. Raul Labrador launched his upstart bid for House Majority Leader on Friday, he ran into a big problem: He didn't have his colleagues' phone numbers.
House Republican members and GOP aides, in interviews with the Washington Examiner over the weekend, said that the Idaho Republican has made concerted attempts to woo his colleagues, whose votes he is asking for in Thursday's secret-ballot election for majority leader.
But events over the weekend showed why Labrador's bid to upset House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., for the conference's influential No. 2 post remains a long shot.
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Labrador, a Tea Party favorite, didn't have basic contact information for many of his colleagues, such as their direct cell phone numbers. Republican aides said Labrador's staff was calling their offices and asking for it.
Many also said it was the first time he'd reached out to them — a crucial contrast with McCarthy, who has cultivated relationships across a broad cross-section of the Republican conference.
“If you don’t have contact numbers — much less have ever spoken with someone — you can’t get the votes,” said one House Republican, who spoke to the Washington Examiner on condition of anonymity.
Added a Republican aide to a member who hails from a red state: “Raul Labrador’s office was calling around Friday getting members’ contact information — a great juxtaposition to Kevin McCarthy, who already had such close relationships that he was texting or calling most members immediately.”
Labrador was elected from Idaho’s 1st Congressional District, considered among the most conservative in the country, in 2010, after upsetting the GOP establishment’s favored candidate in a GOP primary. He has staked out staunchly conservative positions in his three and a half years on Capitol Hill, and is regularly at odds with House GOP leadership.
But Labrador is not entirely predictable.
The congressman for months following the 2012 elections was part of a bipartisan gang of eight House members -- four Democrats and four Republicans -- who attempted to forge a compromise on comprehensive immigration reform. The talks had the strong backing of House Speaker John Boehner, and Labrador was prepared to support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Then Labrador dropped out of the talks just before they collapsed.
On Friday, he told talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, a Washington Examiner columnist, that he intended to beat McCarthy when House Republicans gather behind closed doors on Thursday to elect a successor to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who will step down on July 31 in the wake of his defeat in a GOP primary in Virginia.
“I am going to win. You know, I’m already getting a lot of calls from people who are telling me that they’re switching their vote, that they’re excited about having a choice in this race, and that they want a different direction for the conference. They want more conservative leadership in the House,” Labrador said.
Some, particularly GOP activists rooting for Labrador, are framing the contest as the Republican Establishment trying to maintain its hold on power and suppress the Tea Party. Others have wondered why House Republicans don’t appear more open to fresh conservative leadership at the top, given Cantor’s stunning loss.
But members frame the race differently.
To begin with, most House Republicans outside Labrador’s small circle of insurgent conservatives don’t really know him on a personal level. It’s not that they have stronger relationships with McCarthy — it’s that they have no connection to Labrador whatsoever. Given the responsibilities of the majority leader post, and the power that comes with it, it’s a high bar to expect House Republicans to elect an inexperienced member they don’t know on a persona level.
In concert with the speaker, the House majority leader has a pretty firm grip over the floor agenda — which legislation is allowed to get a vote, which is denied. The majority leader also is responsible for the mundane but important task of managing floor operations, in part to ensure that the minority party can’t use parliamentary procedures to force the majority to take politically uncomfortable votes. Labrador’s inexperience works against him here.
Labrador also would be expected to be the House Republican conference’s No. 2 national fundraiser, ranking just below Boehner in this regard.
But the Idahoan has no national fundraising network and no existing political team prepared to take on this task. Labrador doesn’t need to raise big money to win re-election to his district, but then neither does McCarthy, who used his safe status to raise money for his colleagues, including the majority of Republicans elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave.
Had a House conservative with more legislative experience and real fundraising chops chosen to challenge McCarthy, he might have had a real battle on his hands.
Absent that, Republicans monitoring the leadership elections peg Labrador’s ceiling for votes at anywhere from the low 20s to high 40s. One Republican operative said Labrador would pick up the support of conservative insurgents and the small collection of members who don’t like McCarthy.
“I think he's running to weaken McCarthy in hopes someone else, like [House Budget Chairman Paul] Ryan [R-Wis.] will get in,” this operative speculated.