Does the Fate of Immigration Reform Depend on This Idaho Congressman?

Puerto Rican-born, Tea Party-purist, GOP-leadership-defying immigration attorney Raul Labrador has confounded expectations throughout his political career.
Matt Cilley/Associated Press

Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador is a study in contrasts. The second-term congressman grew up in Puerto Rico and speaks with a mild accent, but he is a Tea Party purist who represents one of the whitest states in the country. He is a leading figure in the right wing of the GOP caucus that has been unafraid to challenge House Speaker John Boehner's leadership. But as a Hispanic, he is also a valued long-term asset for a party desperate to prove its diversity bona fides. Labrador is at once a thorn in the side of the GOP establishment and also perhaps the House Republicans' most appealing voice as Congress slowly stumbles toward reform.

Labrador is scrappy. During his first House campaign in 2010, he was twice the underdog but emerged victorious thanks to a combination of luck, perseverance, and natural political cunning. In the GOP primary, he dispatched Vaughn Ward, the establishment pick and a decorated Marine veteran who became a national punchline after a now-infamous video charged him with blatantly plagiarizing Barack Obama's "One America" speech. He then upset the Democrat incumbent, Walt Minnick, in a bruising general election where Labrador's work as an immigration attorney became a flash point for ugly, racially tinged ads against him.

"Some people said Raul got lucky with his timing, but we saw someone who knew how to take advantage of the right time," says John Foster, Minnick's 2010 campaign manager and a longtime Idaho political operative. "He proved supremely adaptable during that campaign."

Few midterm election outcomes embodied the national tenor in 2010 like the Labrador-Minnick race. The Blue Dog Minnick was so conservative, Foster says, that fellow Idaho Democrats liked to say he was one of the best Republican congressman the state ever had. He earned (and later refused) an early endorsement from the Tea Party Express. As a former CEO and an incumbent with deep ties to the business community, he out-raised Labrador by a three-to-one margin and was an easy favorite to win. But in a state where only 36 percent of voters went for Barack Obama in 2008, Labrador didn't have to engage Minnick on his record. He simply hit him on his party affiliation, linked him at every turn to Nancy Pelosi, and won decisively.

In the two years that followed, Labrador established himself as an uncompromising conservative who did not hesitate to cast minority votes that strayed from party leadership, including a vote against the fiscal cliff compromise this past January. As a second-term representative from a safe district, he can afford to look extreme. "He can be a congressman for as long as he wants," says Foster, who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans.

But even as he defied his party elders -- Labrador was part of a January rebellion in the House that did not vote to reelect Boehner as speaker -- he steadily elevated his own stature in Washington. Despite his relative youth and inexperience on Capitol Hill, he has flourished in the limelight of the establishment political media. He appeared on NBC's Meet the Press five times, was quoted in a lengthy New Yorker profile of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and has in recent weeks become a guiding figure on one of the most fractious Republican issues of the last decade.

Along with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has staked much of his own promising career on the issue, Labrador has been out front and outspoken on turning immigration into a long-term winning issue for conservatives in need of a victory. Labrador is part of a bipartisan group of eight representatives working to draft a reform bill. He sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over immigration issues, and also on the subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.

"Nearly everyone agrees that our immigration system is in desperate need of repair," says Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, adding that as one of three former immigration attorneys serving in the House, Labrador's involvement is "vital." (The other two are Goodlatte himself and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who also sits on the Judiciary Committee.)

Labrador has said he wants a "free-market" approach to reform, including on issues like wages, and has criticized the Senate's version of a guest-worker program. Despite these differences, he remains optimistic about a bill passing the house, and says that, at this stage, any reports of intra-Republican divisions over the issue are a media invention, a holdover from the Bush years. "The media says that conservatives are against immigration reform," he told The Atlantic. "I haven't found that to be the case. Most hardcore conservatives in the House come from rural agricultural districts, so we understand the need for reform."

But the fact is that hardline anti-reform elements remain. Iowa Representative Steve King, who recently referred to illegal immigrants as "unregistered Democrats," has given no indication that he will be any more amenable this year than during reform efforts in the past. Labrador concedes that there will be "individual members opposed to any kind of immigration reform," and added that King "does not speak for the conservative movement as a whole."

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Michael Ames writes about politics, culture and Western issues. His work has appeared in publications including Harper’s, The Daily Beast, and Lucky Peach

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