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The Labrador Effect: Tea Partier's Bid For Leader Deepens GOP Rift

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AP Photo / Alex Brandon

McCarthy has the election all but locked up. GOP leadership's decision to hold the election just nine days after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's stunning primary defeat makes it difficult for any member to corral enough support to leapfrog the man who's next in line for the job. But even if Labrador recognizes this he has little to lose and lots to gain, personally and ideologically, by mounting an underdog bid that fails. Labrador's run gives the House's "hell no" caucus -- tea party lawmakers who habitually vote against even routine bills -- an alternative to McCarthy.

The Idaho Republican, who was ushered into Congress on the 2010 tea party wave, is one of the most far-right members of the conference, frequently egging on leadership to be more confrontational with the president and to use their control of the House to force him to swallow a more conservative agenda. Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) leadership team has come to believe that this approach is futile, if not self-defeating, beyond a point.

"President Obama and the Democrats have had their chance and they have failed," Labrador said in a statement announcing his bid for majority leader. "Republicans must be willing to take these challenges head on with new leadership, fresh ideas, and a different approach."

Campaigning for the coveted No. 2 spot stands to raise Labrador's profile, endearing him to right-wing members who don't want McCarthy to ascend. Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) began whipping for Labrador within moments of his announcement.

Labrador may be a viable alternative to McCarthy for Reps. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) and Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), who unsuccessfully sought to draft Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) for the position. Then there are outside tea party activists, namely FreedomWorks, who pushed Labrador to run and immediately began mobilizing their members to get behind him.

"Between McCarthy and Labrador, the decision is a no-brainer. Rep. Labrador is the strongest leadership choice for constitutional conservatives who are ready to shake things up in Congress," FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe wrote to the group's proclaimed 6 million members. "Kevin McCarthy represents more of the stale, failed leadership we have seen from Republicans in Congress. ... We need your help to send messages to your representative to support Raúl Labrador in the leadership election on June 19."

Labrador has worked hard to scuttle immigration reform, while McCarthy has voiced support for legal status for undocumented immigrants. Opposition to any form of "amnesty" is a litmus test for tea partiers, so that compels McCarthy to angle against action, further diminishing its prospects. On budgetary matters, Labrador slammed GOP leadership for backing down and funding Obamacare during the government shutdown last fall.

"News has come out this afternoon that Raul Labrador will take on Kevin McCarthy in the bid to replace Eric Cantor as Majority Leader. Good. Someone needs to," conservative advocate and Fox News contributor Erick Erickson wrote. "Conservatives need to have someone in each position so that the other men cannot take on the veneer of being conservative."

The danger for Labrador is that his bid could backfire -- for himself and the tea party movement -- if he gets only a paltry number of votes. To the extent that the McCarthy vs. Labrador race will resemble the establishment vs. anti-establishment struggle that drove Cantor's loss, every vote Labrador gets for majority leader will symbolize the political clout of the hard right and its dissatisfaction with the direction of the conference.

Despite his long odds, Labrador has an clear case to make on the face of it: anti-establishment conservatives ousted the No. 2 House Republican, therefore his replacement should be an anti-establishment conservative.

"Eric is a good friend and I have tremendous respect for him," he said. "But the message from Tuesday is clear – Americans are looking for a change in the status quo."