It was the opening week of the 112th Congress, in January 2011, when Raúl Labrador, then a rookie congressman representing Idaho's 1st District, joined 86 other Republican freshmen for a series of talks with Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team.
Disruption was in the air. It was this group—the rollicking, swaggering, overflowing class of 2010—that allowed Republicans to reclaim the majority in the House of Representatives. They had done so not merely by vowing to check President Barack Obama after two years of unified Democratic rule, but by declaring war on a flaccid GOP establishment that, in their estimation, had fallen out of touch with the American people. Few incoming members were more bellicose than Labrador, a Puerto Rico-born immigration attorney who had distinguished himself as a conservative firebrand during two terms in the Idaho statehouse. Armed with what they felt were clear mandates from their voters, Labrador and his fellow Tea Party freshmen came to transform Congress itself—to stop Washington's spending binge and to return the Republican Party to its small-government foundations.
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Boehner, however, quickly set a few things straight. Campaigning, he told them, was different from governing. With Obama in the White House and a Senate still controlled by the Democrats, incrementalism would be necessary if they were to accomplish anything of substance. The speaker expected his new colleagues to fall in line. Labrador remembers being appalled, first at Boehner's dismissal of their messianic fervor—and, by extension, the enthusiasm of their voters—and then at his fellow classmates, many of whom reflexively pledged allegiance to the speaker.
"I thought it was a revolution. I thought we were going to completely change the way that Washington worked," Labrador says. "Within one week—I'm not exaggerating—I saw a large majority of my class saying, essentially, 'Whatever you need us to do, we will do.' And I was sick inside."
Many are the members of Congress who arrive in Washington wide-eyed and raring with optimism only to depart the institution chafed and cynical. But few have grown disillusioned faster than Labrador. "I assumed that everyone had the same idealistic mentality that I did," he says. "But week after week, I realized that most of the people here just want to keep their jobs and hold on to power. And it's one of the reasons I haven't fit into this place very well."
It's an understatement to say Labrador has failed to fit in. He is, in the words of one friend, "the angriest man in Congress," an abrasive critic of Washington whose time here only darkened his outlook. He is a loner, even by House Freedom Caucus standards, a Mormon who doesn't drink and has no interest in socializing. Hardly any member of Congress has been tougher on his own party's leadership, and less popular on Capitol Hill as a result. There were surely no tears shed in Speaker Paul Ryan's office when Labrador announced last year that he would leave and run for governor of Idaho, and no small celebration at Boise's chamber of commerce when, in May, Labrador lost the Republican primary to Brad Little, the lieutenant governor and party favorite.
It seemed only appropriate that Labrador was thwarted by the establishment one final time. Looking back over his nearly eight years in Congress—a period of internecine turmoil within the GOP—he relishes having so forcefully and frequently played the role of antagonist, even though his efforts, at least on the surface, have mostly been for naught. Power is more concentrated in the hands of party leadership than ever. America's immigration crisis, a problem he was determined to solve, grows more vexing for Republicans by the day. And, to Labrador's greatest chagrin, government spending has increased since a total GOP takeover in 2016. "It feels like Dick Cheney's in the White House again," he sighs, "saying, 'Deficits don't matter.'"
Labrador, though, isn't going home empty-handed. To the fundamental question asked in 2010—could these renegade Tea Partiers actually change how Congress works?—the answer is increasingly, emphatically yes. In establishing the House Freedom Caucus, a group of some three dozen conservatives who sometimes vote as a bloc, Labrador and his co-founders scrambled Washington's symmetrical partisan warfare by threatening an effective veto over their own party's leadership. One speaker of the House retired because of these tactics; another is on the way out and eager to be rid of them. It is a strange achievement: to gain enough power to hamstring the party from the inside, but not enough to realize its policy goals. If the GOP keeps the House majority in the 2018 midterm elections, one thing is clear: Labrador's remaining comrades in the Freedom Caucus will have the numbers, and the leverage, to choose the next speaker.
If that day comes, Labrador won't be in Washington to celebrate it. He's heading home at year's end, unsure of what he will do next. In an exit interview with Politico Magazine, the congressman says he is glad to be escaping a "broken" Congress and the "hypocrites" in his own party. "I won't miss a lot of things about this place," Labrador says. "I think some people lose their soul here. This is a place that just sucks your soul. It takes everything from you."
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This is the story not just of Labrador, but of the dozens of conservatives who came to Washington after the 2010 elections, in the wake of George W. Bush's presidency, on a mission to seize back control of both the federal government and of their own party. Nearly eight years later, they are left to weigh the triumph of trashing the status quo against the failure to effect the substantial policy changes they promised—all while wrestling with the realization that Donald Trump's presidency refutes some of the core assumptions they once had about conservatism, their constituents and the future of the Republican Party.
It seems almost unthinkable now, but Labrador's Idaho district was represented in 2010 by a Democrat: Walt Minnick, whose votes against the stimulus package and Affordable Care Act couldn't spare him from becoming one of the country's most vulnerable incumbents. With a bull's-eye on the district, the National Republican Congressional Committee threw its weight behind Vaughn Ward, a Marine veteran and blue-chip recruit. The institutional GOP spurned Labrador, who in turn campaigned with gusto against his party's establishment and garnered grass-roots support from local affiliates of what had begun to be called the Tea Party. That didn't appear to be a great differentiator: His opponent in the primary was backed by Sarah Palin, unofficial matriarch of the Tea Party; and the incumbent, Minnick, a revered fiscal hawk, was himself endorsed by a national Tea Party group—the only Democrat in America to be so. But Labrador, harnessing a resentment toward Washington that was just beginning to percolate in the base, upset Ward in the primary and easily dispatched Minnick in the general election.
It was his race, more than any other in 2010, that highlighted a question central to the new decade of American politics: What, exactly, is the Tea Party?
"It was supposed to be representing the fear and angst about growing government that was becoming a behemoth. And it was 'taxed enough already.' Concern about high taxes and high regulations," Labrador says. "But really I always saw the Tea Party as the people who felt the government wasn't listening to them. People who felt politicians would lie to their faces and not keep their promises."
Labrador vowed never to become one of those politicians. He and his new colleagues had made bold promises to their constituents; delivering on them was not optional. Problem was, some of those promises were a tad unrealistic. Democrats controlled both the Senate and the White House. This conflict manifested itself quickly: Part of the GOP's "Pledge to America" in 2010 was to cut $100 billion in spending in year one. Except they couldn't. The fiscal year was already half-over by the time numbers could be crunched; moreover, Democrats were never going to rubber-stamp such a steep reduction.
Labrador remembers that struggle, in the spring of 2011, as a watershed. While the freshman class pressured leadership to make good on the promise, they began to realize that the promise was not meant to be made good on. It was that episode, he says, that drove Republicans into two distinct camps: one that observed Boehner's message about the realities of governing and resigned themselves to a lemonade-making pragmatism; the other that dismissed Boehner's call for teamwork and rebelled, convinced that brawling in pursuit of even the unattainable was a better alternative.
Within one week—I'm not exaggerating—I saw a large majority of my class saying, essentially, 'Whatever you need us to do, we will do.' And I was sick inside."
It was the beginning of factionalism in the House GOP—and the end of any hope for party unity. "You could tell how unhelpful a member would be, and not just from the 2010 class, by how much they would use the word 'fight,'" says Doug Heye, former deputy chief of staff to then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor. "Rarely would the call to fight be accompanied by any kind of strategy to land the punches, win the round or knock down the opponent. It was as if all of the problems of dealing with a Democratic president and Democratic Senate could be magically won simply by throwing as many punches as possible."
It's a fair critique—that many Tea Partiers were more committed to headline-grabbing obstruction than the diligent pursuit of policy changes. Still, the Obama-era reality was that Republicans, from the top down, bit off more red meat on the campaign trail than they could hope to chew. The result was a cascading narrative of expectations not met—from conservative media, voters and politicians—and a self-perpetuating fatalism about the party's viability. Six years of such dysfunction laid an ideal foundation for a future president to run against both parties and win. "It's the only reason we got Trump," Labrador tells me. "Trump was a reflection of how the country felt about the Republican Party."
Following those first two years of vicious infighting, Labrador returned for his sophomore term in 2013. His first act in that new Congress, alongside 11 of his fellow troublemakers, was to withhold support for Boehner's reelection to his leadership post. The speaker survived. But blood was in the water.
Around this time, Labrador had an epiphany. Entering the new Congress, a small core of House conservatives—perhaps two dozen, all following the lead of Ohio Representative Jim Jordan—were lamenting their lack of influence over policy and debating tactical breakthroughs. Ideological warfare, Labrador argued, missed the point. The problem wasn't that moderates outnumbered conservatives in the Republican Conference; it was that GOP leadership controlled the structure and process of the legislative branch—from assigning committee chairmen and members to choosing which amendments could be voted on to determining which bills would receive consideration on the House floor. This was the top-down system Boehner had inherited, Labrador argues, and most of the rank-and-file Republicans abided for a simple reason: The leadership used it to shield vulnerable members from taking hazardous votes.
Conservatives began focusing more on the process itself, and Labrador began questioning whether leadership was truly the culprit. Although he continued to make life difficult for Boehner and Ryan, Labrador now says his ire was misplaced. "The one thing that's changed over the last eight years is that I'm no longer mad at the leadership. It's not their fault. It's really the membership that has failed, not the leadership," he says. "The membership wants leadership to exercise a strong hand because they want this game to continue. It protects them from making tough decisions. ... It's much easier to go along and get along with leadership, to do what the special interest groups want you to do, because they're all going to give you money for your campaign and help you get reelected."
It's the only reason we got Trump. Trump was a reflection of how the country felt about the Republican Party."
Labrador cites his own gubernatorial effort, which was uniformly opposed by Idaho's business community—and vastly out-financed by two rival campaigns—as proof of this incentive structure. "As a conservative, it's very hard to raise money," he says, "when they know they're not going to get any special breaks, that you're not going to pick winners and losers in the governor's office." (In truth, Labrador suffered not just from a lack of intimacy with donors, but from a perception that he specialized in creating problems rather than solving them. Also, there is no shortage of special interest groups on the right that reward politicians for a strident brand of conservativism; they, too, are playing the game.)
Credit: Politico Illustration
In 2013, the GOP establishment dug in. Boehner had won a second term as speaker, and his lieutenants, Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, were entrenched as his heirs apparent. The frustration built among conservatives. The backbiting grew nastier in the conference. That summer, as Republicans grappled with comprehensive immigration reform, Labrador abruptly quit a key House working group that had been writing a bipartisan bill. On the surface, Labrador's dissent stemmed from a disagreement over health care coverage for undocumented immigrants. Beneath that, however, he says that Boehner was "undercutting our negotiations" by assuring Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that the House would ultimately vote on the Senate bill that had passed with bipartisan support—and included a path to citizenship. (Labrador, and many conservatives, say they will only approve a path to legal status.) In reality, Boehner never came close to holding a vote on the Senate bill, in part because it had far more support from big donors and party leaders than it did from his members. Still, Labrador's defection from the group was central to what he called "a revolt" that summer from the right, one that he says gave Boehner and Cantor no choice but to ignore the Senate bill. "They were told in our conference, 'If you try this, you're going to be gone,'" Labrador says.
Conservatives felt emboldened. A few months later, with their constituents furious at the news of Obamacare's implementation on October 1—after three years of being promised it would be repealed—leaders on the right debated various Hail Mary options to show voters they had done everything imaginable to defeat the law. The one that gained the most traction: defunding Obamacare entirely. Its only possible fate was failure. And that, Labrador believes, is why Boehner wound up embracing the plan—to teach his rowdy conference a lesson. Labrador points out that the defund strategy was the "more extreme, Ted Cruz position" pushed by some on the right; plenty of House conservatives were with him in promoting a one-year delay of Obamacare's introduction in exchange for one year of funding. It might have been a more reasonable offer, but the endgame was clear: Obama wasn't going to give an inch on his signature domestic accomplishment (which he didn't), and Republican efforts to test that proposition were always going to result in a government shutdown (which they did).
The period of relative quiet that followed suggested that Boehner had been wise to lift the lid from the pressure cooker. But tension soon resurfaced. By early 2014, discontent with GOP leadership was more acute than ever. The House rebels plotted fresh schemes to remove Boehner at year's end. They were soon rendered moot: Cantor, some six months away from becoming speaker—as Boehner planned to retire anyway—was stunningly felled in his Virginia primary by Dave Brat, a political unknown who allied himself with grass-roots activists and conservative talk radio to paint Cantor as an out-of-touch elite who was soft on immigration. Labrador felt conflicted. Cantor was the person he trusted most among the GOP leaders—the most conservative personally, and the most accommodating to conservative lawmakers. Still, he says, Cantor "always misread the country and the conference on immigration," and wound up paying for it.
It quickly became obvious that the race to replace Cantor as majority leader would be a coronation for McCarthy, the majority whip. For all the beefs with GOP leadership—and the conservative qualms with McCarthy, a back-slapping, ideologically amorphous Californian—nobody, it seemed, had the stomach for thwarting his promotion. Labrador took it upon himself. "What I found most objectionable was not Kevin, but the process—you're next in line and you get to move up without even being challenged," he says. "It was everything that's wrong with Congress."
The showdown was anticlimactic; everyone knew McCarthy would trounce his token opposition. Labrador lost the election but won over some skeptics with an appeal to all factions of the House GOP to consider a new, wide-open, bottom-up process for lawmaking—even if that meant, as Labrador acknowledged, the final product would be more moderate. "He got a chance to talk to everybody. And we don't have many communicators in our conference as good as Raúl," Tom Cole, the Oklahoma congressman and leadership ally, told me at the time. "He's very, very persuasive."
Even before the loss to McCarthy, Labrador and his allies had toyed with the idea of creating an official group to garage their rebellion. For decades, the Republican Study Committee had been home base for House conservatives, but in recent years its ideological drive had been diluted by a ballooning membership. When Mick Mulvaney ran to become RSC chairman in the fall of 2014, promising a return to hardball—and lost to a leadership-friendly rival—it was "the last straw" for conservatives. "I wanted a smaller, more nimble group that could unify and vote accordingly," Labrador says. "One member out of 435 has very little power. But a group of 30 or 40 can have significant power."
What I found most objectionable was not Kevin [McCarthy], but the process—you're next in line and you get to move up without even being challenged."
And so was born, in January 2015, the House Freedom Caucus, with Ohio's Jordan as chairman. There were growing pains, especially on the question of removing Boehner. Cantor's loss had extended the speaker's tenure by default, and there was no ready alternative. Still, some restive conservatives—notably Mark Meadows, the ambitious co-founder of the group who later succeeded Jordan as chairman—wanted to move against the speaker. Labrador and Jordan objected. "We didn't think it was the right timing. And we were trying to give Boehner an opportunity to change," Labrador says.
Undeterred, Meadows executed a parliamentary procedure to invite a midsession vote for speaker of the House, triggering Boehner's eventual resignation. The implication was stunning: Whoever the next speaker was going to be, the Freedom Caucus now had implicit veto power. McCarthy failed to lock up its support; try as they might, Labrador's crew couldn't extract any sort of deal in which he would promote one of their own to majority leader in exchange for making him the speaker. This opened the door for Ryan, the only universally acceptable man for the job—and one who didn't want it to begin with. After reluctantly agreeing to run, he met with Freedom Caucus members on several occasions. He told them he wouldn't be held hostage to their demands. They understood but made something clear in return: What they wanted most was for him to open the legislative process and let the House "work its will," a phrase Ryan deployed repeatedly upon taking the speaker's gavel.
He did not deliver. The House under Ryan has been procedurally stifled—amendments disallowed, committee chairmen disempowered, leadership predetermining outcomes left and right. "It's worse than ever," Labrador says. "Boehner never said he wanted a process that was more open. There were no pretenses. ... That's what's so disappointing about Paul—he said he was going to change it. And he hasn't."
Complicating the dynamic is the president himself. A vote against GOP leadership is no longer a base-pleasing poke at Boehner or Ryan—it's a dangerous defiance of Trump. The president is wildly popular in Freedom Caucus districts. This has been confounding to some conservative lawmakers: They watched the same voters who sent them to D.C. with a mandate for ideological purity and fiscal discipline—or so they believed—flood the polls to vote for a former Democrat from New York who barely paid lip service to the debt or the deficit.
"[Thomas] Massie is the one who says it best," Labrador says of his colleague from Kentucky. "When he ran, he thought they were looking for a conservative and it was all about ideology. But now he realizes they were looking for the craziest SOB who will actually take on the establishment." Labrador adds of Republican voters: "They want a conservative government. But they're not ideologically pure like some of us."
Trump knows this. When Freedom Caucus conservatives led the way in torpedoing the first version of the Obamacare repeal-and-replace package in the spring of 2017, the president took to Twitter and blamed the three ringleaders: Jordan, Meadows and Labrador. The Idaho congressman laughed it off, but his friends whispered about the risk of alienating Trump's "cult" following in their districts. It's unclear whether the president's broadside hurt Labrador's statewide ambitions; Trump, who once interviewed him for the role of interior secretary, never offered what could have been a pivotal endorsement in the governor's race. But Labrador says the episode demonstrated his greatest concern about the Trump presidency: "He's surrounding himself with a lot of swamp dwellers," the congressman says. "He needs to look around at the people in the White House and figure out who's with him and who's not. Just because [we] might disagree with him doesn't mean we're the enemy. We're trying to help him keep the promises that he made."
As for his own promises, Labrador has precious time left to keep them. He is glad to have passed tax reform, albeit with quibbles about both the policy and the process. He is happy to see regulatory relief and conservative judges on the bench. But Obamacare remains the law of the land. The debt continues to skyrocket. And government spending has exploded, once again, on the GOP's watch. "You hear every Republican politician say they want to balance the budget, yet when it comes to bloated budget bills in Congress, everyone votes for them," Labrador says. "When you hear the defense hawks arguing for more money, and saying we have to give Democrats more of their spending to get it, I realize there's just nobody here serious about fiscal sanity."
Just because [we] might disagree with [Trump] doesn't mean we're the enemy. We're trying to help him keep the promises that he made."
For a once-proud revolutionary, Labrador sounds resigned to the fact that Republicans cannot change. And he worries that if Trump makes the mistakes of George W. Bush—whose big-government, big-spending tenure might have birthed the Tea Party as much as Obama's—conservatives will break free and start "a third party completely divorced from the establishment, like a Freedom Caucus on the national level." It's a strange conversation to have at a time when his party dominates the federal government and Democrats are in the wilderness. But Labrador fears history could rapidly repeat itself—and the GOP could be vulnerable to another wipeout.
"The Republican Party is on a pretty thin thread right now," he says. "The establishment invited this insurgency by not listening to the American people. It started during the Bush years. It got worse with Boehner. Now Paul. And Trump actually spoke to those people. That's why it's so incumbent on him to listen to them. Because if he doesn't, they will turn on him, too."
Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for Politico Magazine.