Raúl R. Labrador is gunning to make Thursday’s House GOP majority leader contest an electoral upset on par with Eric Cantor’s primary loss last week to Dave Brat. But Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy is not just trying to win the race — he wants to make a statement.
“The question is not whether he has it locked up,” Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., told CQ Roll Call Monday. “The question is how many total votes will he have.”
Both Labrador, a second-term conservative from Idaho, and McCarthy, a fourth-term lawmaker from California, are working the phones, albeit for different reasons.
Labrador seems to think he can win the race; McCarthy seems to think he needs a strong vote margin if he wants to be majority leader for more than six months. While they're both contacting members, their overall campaign strategies are strikingly different. McCarthy has yet to do a news interview — he hasn’t even formally announced his candidacy. Meanwhile, Labrador is using the media to ask voters across the country to help him make his case to their representatives.
On Monday, Labrador spoke with CQ Roll Call about his strategy. He said most members of the Republican Conference want leadership to change — “We just want the committee process to work, we just want regular order” — and views this race as a “golden opportunity” to enact those transformations.
Labrador said the Republican Party needs “five or six” big ideas that Americans understand and connect with. “We need a conservative agenda, we need people to understand what the Republican Party stands for,” he said.
Washington insiders have already declared his rival Thursday's winner, but Labrador told conservative talk radio hosts over the weekend that he remains confident he'll be the next majority leader.
“I’m just going to keep working hard, and I need to earn every single vote, because I’m not going to make promises,” he said.
That could be a subtle shot at McCarthy — or it just might be an indication that Labrador recognizes that this race might be more about the score than the binary outcome. Either way, Labrador wouldn’t specifically comment on McCarthy’s strategy of staying out of the media’s eye.
“I don’t know what his strategy is,” Labrador said. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it."
Labrador generally refused to bash McCarthy, saying “the great thing” about a Labrador win would be that McCarthy could remain majority whip.
Still, when CQ Roll Call asked Labrador if he thought McCarthy had laid out a vision for what he would do as majority leader, Labrador was plainspoken.
“I do not,” he said.
While Labrador was campaigning Monday, McCarthy joined Speaker John A. Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor at a National Republican Congressional Committee fundraiser in Manhattan, where the leadership team raised $900,000.
Fundraising is an integral part of the majority leader position, Labrador said, but he noted that if the GOP presented a “clear vision” for America, maybe Republicans wouldn’t need to raise so much money to win elections.
“Look at what the NRCC is struggling with right now," he said. "Getting the small donors."
Labrador contrasted the Democrats’ success in small online donations with Republican troubles in that category.
“The base of the Democratic Party is energized, and our base is not energized,” he said.
Since jumping into the race on June 13 , Labrador has done interviews with some of the biggest names in conservative talk radio: Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Hugh Hewitt.
In all of his appearances, Labrador has confidently declared that he will win the race, and he has subtly accused McCarthy and the rest of GOP leadership of ignoring the rank and file. In one extended rant on Hannity's show, Labrador seemed to be speaking directly to the GOP conference.
“This is one of the most important jobs in America, to be a member of Congress,” he said on June 13. “And you should feel proud of the work that you’re doing, and you should go to work every single day excited that you’re actually making a difference in people’s lives. I think I want to make sure that every member of Congress feels that way. That it’s not a top-down leadership, that it’s actually — that they can actually make a difference, that they can actually have input into what happens in the conference. That you don’t just have to be one of the friends of the leadership team in order to actually do your job in Congress.”
Labrador called that the “main difference” between himself and McCarthy. But while he has tried to reach out to conservatives via talk radio, his campaign has run into problems putting the Idaho Republican into position to make his case to fellow Congress members.
The Washington Examiner reported Monday that Labrador was having problems getting his colleagues’ phone numbers — and he also ran into trouble over the weekend at the Idaho state Republican convention, when, as the chairman, he had to adjourn the meeting after attempts to disqualify a third of the delegates began to succeed.
Labrador's rival, meanwhile, is content to cruise under the radar, taking a low-profile approach to Thursday's election.
But don't think for a minute that McCarthy is taking the contest for granted, his top lieutenants told CQ Roll Call on Monday.
Fellow California Republican Devin Nunes has known McCarthy for more than 20 years, and he said there was no chance the whip wasn’t focused on the race.
“No one will outwork him,” Nunes said.
Nunes said McCarthy’s campaign strategy is to talk one-on-one with every member, not to make his case through the media.
“If you’re talking to the media, you’re really not talking to the people you need to be talking to,” Nunes said.
McHenry, another top McCarthy lieutenant, delivered a similar sentiment Monday afternoon.
“If you’re spending time really doing heavy press, it’s kind of taking your time with getting those final conversations in,” McHenry said.
McHenry was confident that McCarthy would be the next majority leader, but he said McCarthy wouldn’t be satisfied “eking out a win.”
“I think Kevin went to bed on Wednesday with 120,” McHenry said, referring to the number of votes McCarthy had locked up. To win the position, a candidate needs 117.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., was also confident.
When CQ Roll Call asked about a whip count, Denham intimated that he had an idea, but wouldn’t give any specifics.
“I know that Kevin is very confident,” he said.
Still, as McHenry pointed out, this race may not be completely about who wins and who loses. McCarthy needs a strong showing if he wants to ward off leadership challengers come November. And while Labrador's chances are seen as slim, he's instantly raised his profile and offered an alternative to the fait accompli of McCarthy as majority leader.
If the GOP is moving to the right, that message might eventually pay off for the Idaho conservative.
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