Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador’s announcement Friday that he would run against California Rep. Kevin McCarthy to become the next House Majority Leader may not lead to conservative triumph at next week’s secret-ballot election, but it will give the right an outlet to vent long-simmering frustrations with a leadership team they view as out of touch with their concerns.
Washington is still reeling from shock after Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor lost his Virginia primary race to challenger David Brat, an economics professor who trounced Cantor Tuesday by more than ten percentage points. Cantor’s loss—and his subsequent announcement that he would step down from his leadership post on July 31—set off a scramble among senior House Republicans to fill the position. Other potential candidates expressed interest initially, namely Texas Reps. Pete Sessions and Jeb Hensarling, but dropped their bids quickly when it appeared McCarthy already had the votes to win locked up. With the possibility that McCarthy would go unchallenged, Labrador stepped in Friday.
Labrador hopes that by jumping into the race he can tap into frustration among some in the GOP conference who see party leadership as lacking representation from hardline conservatives.
“I was stunned when Eric Cantor lost his primary election earlier this week. 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,” Labrador said in a statement announcing his candidacy. “I want a House Leadership team that reflects the best of our conference. A leadership team that can bring the Republican conference together. A leadership team that can help unite and grow our party. Americans don’t believe their leaders in Washington are listening and now is the time to change that."
Labrador’s chances are slim given McCarthy’s stature as a member of House leadership and aggressive efforts this week to shore up support from fellow GOP lawmakers. Were he to win, Labrador, who was born in Puerto Rico, would be the first Hispanic Majority Leader and the first Mormon to hold the spot. Also, no member of Congress has risen to the Majority Leader position after just four years in office. Despite his past flirtations with immigration reform, Labrador is popular on the right, and has a 77 percent rating on the conservative issue scorecard issued by Heritage Action, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group aligned with the Heritage Foundation think tank. While not near a perfect record, it's much higher than McCarthy's 42 percent rating.
McCarthy, however, is the clear favorite within the Republican establishment in Washington to succeed Cantor, who endorsed his bid on Wednesday. Leaders pushed for an election to fill the majority leader slot on June 19 — well before Cantor's July 31 relinquishing of the position — in large part because they believed the quick turnaround would heavily favor McCarthy over any insurgent challenger.
Given the constant conservative attack on GOP leaders, why should a truncated calendar be enough to push McCarthy over the top?
The answer is deeply rooted in House tradition and the definition and function of McCarthy's role as majority whip. Of all of the top House Republican leaders, McCarthy is the one most members know best. Though the power of the whip position has been reduced since Congress banned earmarks, McCarthy still was tasked with knowing each member and getting them to vote for the party's position.
The job that didn't always prove to be easy, and McCarthy came in for considerable flack when the Republican whip operation failed, as it did on several occasions during his tenure. Offering pizza, beer and Chick-fil-A in the whip's office turned out to be a less influential carrot-and-stick operation than promising funds to build bridges and roads in a member's district — a tool denied to McCarthy thanks to earmark reform. And yet McCarthy held get-togethers in his office anyway and his gregarious nature, while not always enough to round up the votes needed to pass legislation unpopular with conservatives, ingratiated him to many members.
Moreover, McCarthy, a California Republican, was instrumental in the 2010 "Young Guns" campaign that recruited many of the conservatives who were swept into office in the GOP wave that year. With Cantor and former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, McCarthy took a personal role in traveling the country, meeting with candidates and helping them fund and structure their campaigns. The effort has turned out to be a bit of a double-edged sword, given that it emboldened the kind of intra-party challenges that ultimately cost Cantor his career. But it did build good will among conservatives, some of whom now plan to pick McCarthy over more a conservative alternative. Ryan also has backed McCarthy’s bid.
Whereas someone like Hensarling had strong support from his colleagues — they wanted him in the job more than he ever did — Labrador's biggest selling point would be that he's not McCarthy. And though that will be enough reason for some, the Capitol is still a place that runs on personal allegiances and coalitions, especially when it comes to internal leadership races, and they will be a powerful force during the vote next week.
McCarthy has been actively courting members since it became clear that Cantor would be stepping down this summer, with the lawmaker and his staff pulling late hours to boost his bid. That dedicated campaign helped deter strong challengers, but the late challenge from Labrador shows the conservative faction of the party still pining for an alternative. The secret-ballot vote Thursday will clearly show how large that dissenting bloc is.
The majority leader race is only the first of several that will determine the future of the House GOP and perhaps the Republican Party more broadly.
If McCarthy is elected to majority leader Thursday, there will be an immediate vote to fill the vacancy he leaves as whip. Three candidates so far have declared for that race, including Steven Scalise of Louisiana, the current chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, who could push the tea party line from the inside and wreak havoc as the conference's official vote counter. Moreover, Republicans will need to vote for leaders again at the beginning of next Congress, and the more defectors there are now from McCarthy, the more stress he will feel in the months ahead trying to stave off a challenge then.
Meanwhile, Labrador’s presence in the race at gives frustrated conservatives a chance to express their dissatisfaction.