Most of the national media and his House colleagues have already proclaimed Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California the sure winner in the race on Thursday to select a new House majority leader.
But tea party favorite and two-term Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho insists that Majority Whip McCarthy does not have the race wrapped up and says his own late-starting bid is gaining momentum.
In an exclusive interview with Newsmax between calls to his Republican colleagues, Labrador said, "I'm running for majority leader to win," and any presumption that McCarthy is the heir-apparent to just-resigned leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., may be premature.
"He doesn't have it wrapped up," said Labrador, a former immigration lawyer and the only Republican in Congress of Puerto Rican heritage. "There's a great deal of dissatisfaction and division in our [House Republican] Conference."
The Gem State lawmaker did not share any names of supporters or colleagues who are whipping up support for his candidacy. But he did say there is a strong feeling of dissatisfaction with the current leadership team within the GOP conference.
"Eighty percent of the conference feels their opinions aren't important" to the leadership, he said. "Everyone wants to contribute, and they want a spokesman who can articulate the principles we can stand for."
Labrador cited the issue with which he is most identified: immigration.
"Republicans do a terrible disservice by not talking about it and saying a bill will come up and be passed," he said. "It's wrong to let the other side believe that."
Labrador gave his view without hesitation that "we cannot do anything on immigration this year," and that will change only "when two things occur: Republicans all agree on a single approach, and Republicans agree not to negotiate with the Senate" on the comprehensive package it passed earlier this year."
He also argued that a strong case needs to be made by Republicans that President Barack Obama is responsible for much of the current immigration crisis.
"He's inviting people from South America to the borders in droves by promising the DREAM Act [to grant residency to certain illegal immigrants who came to the country as minors] and suggesting he won't enforce laws dealing with illegal immigration that are on the books.
"And who better to send that message than a Hispanic congressman who used to be an immigration lawyer?"
Labrador supports incremental bills to deal with different immigration problems, but says the majority in Congress should make it clear that "until the president starts enforcing the laws, we're not going to pass anything."
Turning to the business of legislating — and taking a not-so-veiled jab at the present GOP leadership in the House — Labrador said, "We should not be cramming legislation down the throats of the House, and if House members want to debate something out of committee, they should do so. If something comes out of committee, let's let the House floor debate and decide if it's bad or not."
As much as Labrador insists he can win, there is an increasing suggestion that he decided to stand for majority leader to make a case for the estimated 60 to 80 Republicans out of 233 in the House who are considered "tea partiers."
If so, the Idahoan is today's equivalent on the right of Rep. Mo Udall, D-Ariz., a hero to liberal Democrats. In 1969, Udall made a challenge to then-House Speaker John W. McCormack of Massachusetts, a stalwart defender of established House procedures and a foe of liberal reform.
McCormack won by a vote of 178 to 58. But, obviously aware that liberal reformers were growing vocal, the speaker agreed to permit the House Democratic Caucus to meet at least once a month, and that views on any issue could be aired.
Udall's bold move cost him in the short run, but as colleague Dave Obey, D-Wisc., later said, "It gave heart to an entire generation" of younger liberal congressmen.
Is Labrador attempting to do the same for young conservatives today?
Insisting again that he was running to win, he told Newsmax, "We are sending a clear message that we need to head in a new direction. And the response is very good."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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