Raúl Labrador — the Puerto Rican born, BYU-educated, founding member of the Freedom Caucus — looks more like a yachtsman than a lawyer. Sporting a salmon-colored oxford, designer jeans and Ray Bans, the four-term congressman-turned-attorney general candidate is out shaking hands in Idaho’s most tony of lake towns, Coeur d’Alene. With little time before Election Day, the heavily favored Labrador isn’t leaving anything to chance against Democratic nominee Tom Arkoosh. He’s maximizing the baby kissing, meeting and greeting and holding fundraisers in places where a parking spot for your boat on a dock can cost double the annual salary of a state attorney general.
But Labrador isn’t anxious. On a temperate Saturday morning outside the Candlelight Christian Fellowship, against the backdrop of Idaho’s iconic ponderosa pines, his voice lilts calmly as he fields questions about what’s causing citizens from California to flock to Idaho. The 2020 U.S. census put Idaho behind only Utah for the fastest rate of population growth.
And the recent surge has locals on edge.
Idaho’s newcomers overwhelmingly emigrated from more liberal West Coast states, raising the prospect that all those U-Hauls might contain blue-state politics in addition to furniture. But many are also migrating to Idaho precisely because of politics. One woman who recently moved to the state says she and her husband sacrificed a lot to pick up and start again after becoming fed up with West Coast “liberal policies.”
Labrador is listening. He has a politician’s gift for keeping his gaze fixed on a potential voter as they speak. His casual campaign style is a bit surprising. After all, Labrador once publicly tangled with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and challenged Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to become House majority leader. He tells me later that he shares the passion of his voter base, but his manner just doesn’t lend itself to explosive theatrics.
I’m currently half-a-bag deep in buttered popcorn listening to Labrador converse when a sheriff’s deputy in another part of the fellowship’s parking lot hands a kid the microphone to his P.A. system. “Trump 2024!,” the boy shouts to assorted whoops and applause. A voter then turns to Labrador and asks, “Did you ever meet Trump?”
Labrador nods affirmatively.
He was in fact one of Trump’s early supporters after it became clear Ted Cruz had lost and Trump had secured the 2016 GOP presidential primary. But it would seem off to call Labrador “Trumpian.” If Trump is uniquely skilled at exciting the GOP base with red meat rhetoric, Labrador comes across as more interested in turning political energy into plans. Like Trump, Labrador is a longtime border hawk. But unlike Trump, he knows what it’s like to move far from home and learn English as a second language. And as an immigration attorney, he also grasps the intricacies of the relevant laws better than most of his fellow Republicans. It’s this experience he hopes to bring to the role of attorney general.
But his run is not without controversy. Labrador wants a much more ambitious attorney general’s office. One of his former colleagues from the Idaho Legislature, Brent Crane, described Labrador as a big picture “vision” kind of guy — and Labrador’s vision for attorney general is to be a watchdog over individual rights and a bulwark against “federal overreach.” His opponent says this vision risks embroiling the A.G.’s office, and Idaho by extension, in more culture war conflicts. But Labrador believes he’s pitching what Idaho voters have long desired: an “aggressive” attorney general.
He wants the A.G.’s office to be a bulldog for the people, but paradoxically, his cadence out on the campaign trail is about as mild-mannered as the breed of dog with which he shares a name.
Although Labrador wasn’t born in the Gem State, that fact never stopped Idahoans from checking his name at the ballot box. Labrador and his wife, Rebecca (who prefers “Becca”), made Idaho their home in the 1990s, near Boise where Becca’s family of 11 siblings grew up. The two met and married at Brigham Young University. They were in the same “family home evening” church group. He was the “dad” of the group, and, yes, she was the “mom” — Becca laughs, calling it “the sappiest story ever.” With so much of her family in Idaho’s Treasure Valley, it was only a matter of time before the couple settled down in that area after his time at University of Washington’s law school.
Labrador’s background was different from Becca’s, but he was drawn to her large family —something he didn’t have growing up as an only child. In Puerto Rico, his single mother, Ana, held down multiple jobs in order to pay for him to get a private school education, which included military school for fear he would lack discipline without a father in the home. And Labrador learned English as a second language at her behest.
“We were poor, but I didn’t know it,” Labrador says of those early years. When he turned 13 his mother saved up enough money to relocate to Nevada. As a freshman in Las Vegas, Labrador started falling in with the wrong crowd. “She freaked out,” he recalls. Worried that everything she’d sacrificed for her son was in jeopardy, Ana’s interest piqued after a co-worker mentioned her church’s youth programs. It was there the family became acquainted with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the faith that would eventually provide an additional moral compass for their lives.
Labrador attributes not just his faith, but also his work ethic and desire for civil politics to the example of his mother. Politics, especially the issue of statehood for Puerto Rico, was fiercely debated in Labrador’s childhood community. His mother was a Kennedy Democrat, and he remembers once attending a Ted Kennedy for President rally sitting atop the shoulders of a family friend shouting “Viva Kennedy.” However, when he and his mother moved to Vegas, Ana registered as a Republican because she thought President Ronald Reagan had turned the country around.
Ana, who passed away in 2005, lived with her son’s family in Boise for the last 11 years of her life as she struggled with significant health complications. Regardless of political allegiances, Labrador says his mother insisted he treat people with respect. It’s a value the longtime conservative has sought to instill in his five children, some of whom have now married and are starting families of their own. But, even as Labrador talks about civility, he doesn’t shy away from his political beliefs, many of which have made him controversial within pockets of his own political party.
“I’ve always felt the government spends too much and regulates too much,” Labrador says, while making himself comfortable on the back deck of his former staffer’s house overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene. He assumed all Republicans agreed. But after entering politics he says he’s spent more time than he’d like navigating “a battle within the Republican Party” pitting “establishment versus conservative members.”
He takes me back to his early days in the Idaho Legislature. In 2009, first-term Gov. Butch Otter asked his Republican majority to back a 7-cent-per-gallon gas tax raise. Labrador objected. He accused proponents of being inconsiderate of taxpayers dealing with the Great Recession’s economic uncertainty.
“They don’t know what the future will bring,” he said. Although still new to the Legislature, he managed to rally fellow state representatives to reject the tax hike proposed by his own party leadership.
“He stood up after the bill was already dead and said stuff he shouldn’t have said,” House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, told the Idaho Statesman back in 2010. Moyle bristled at Labrador’s opposition and very public victory lap, but also told the paper he felt Labrador matured later in his service as a state legislator: “You see him doing a better job communicating and working with the governor. I think if Raúl had to do it again, he never would have done what he did.”
At the time, Labrador responded to Moyle’s comments: “It’s always nice when someone compliments your growth as an individual, and Mike raises the point that all of us could or would do or say some things differently if we got to do them again. But the fact is, even if I changed the way I said things, I would still have led the fight against that tax increase.”
Labrador eventually mended fences enough with Otter that the two later worked together to oppose Obamacare. However, the gas tax debate branded Labrador as a conservative fighter, and Idaho’s 1st Congressional District elected Labrador to Congress during the tea party wave of 2010 that ultimately returned House control to Republicans. He defeated the GOP’s chosen candidate and the Democratic incumbent despite a significant financial disadvantage.
Feelings of gratitude overwhelmed him when he first arrived in Washington, D.C., as a newly elected freshman congressman. “I was just pinching myself,” Labrador says, reflecting that if a boy who grew up poor in Puerto Rico with a single mother could become a member of Congress, then the American dream was alive and well. His euphoria quickly faded, however, after a meeting of the Republican House caucus with Boehner during his first week.
Behind closed doors, Boehner said the group would have to “change our ideas and some of our promises” regarding a $100 billion cut to government spending, according to Labrador. The young congressman was “seething” with frustration. “I just could not believe it. I thought I had just witnessed the death of the tea party movement in the first week.”
As Labrador tells it, he decided to speak up in the following meeting: “Mr. Speaker, we’re not with you. If we don’t try to keep our promise, how can Americans trust us to keep any of our promises?”
Labrador then muses to me: “I’ve never had a problem standing up against what I think is wrong, but I try to do it civilly and with a smile.”
By 2013, The Washington Post said Labrador was “quietly emerging” as the GOP’s “middleman for immigration reform.” Drawing from Reagan’s “mistakes,” Labrador argued Republicans should not accept amnesty without first getting border security enhancements. This became a popular talking point of the GOP, which was eventually an idea championed by Donald Trump when he ran in 2016.
“He did an exceptional job articulating the conservative point of view to the press and negotiating behind the scenes with others,” former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told me. But later Labrador discovered that Republican leadership wasn’t in lockstep with his efforts.
“This is the theme of my eight years in Washington,” Labrador reflects. After he would get hard-won commitments from the Democrats, “A few members of leadership would tell Democrats that ‘Raúl’s strong border enforcement provisions are not necessary.’ Leadership was always undermining the enforcement aspect of immigration reform,” he says.
Real debate doesn’t happen in Congress, he insists, leadership demands fealty to their closed-door negotiations. So Labrador began holding his own meetings with then-Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who were equally frustrated. These meetings were the start of what eventually became the Freedom Caucus, among the more conservative caucuses in the House. “The best debates I ever had in D.C. were in the Freedom Caucus,” he comments.
Labrador, it seems, likes a good debate, even if it’s a raucous town hall. An Idaho Statesman editorial once said, “Even if you don’t like Labrador, you respect his no-holds-barred town halls.” And The Spokesman-Review noted that one town hall slated for only 90 minutes drew an attendance of over 700 people so Labrador kept the meeting going for over three hours. After fielding questions with a mix of applause and boos, one questioner told Labrador he appreciated the congressman taking the time to listen to everyone even though it didn’t look like much fun. Labrador responded, “I actually like it — I’m used to getting booed. I get it at home all the time.”
Becca said her husband’s greatest satisfaction in Congress came when delivering constituent services. “He loves to help people who don’t know where to get it. Or don’t feel like anyone is listening to them.” Ironically, Labrador didn’t feel he was being listened to in Congress.
“I began to realize that we were not real legislators. Any monkey can do the job of voting red or blue depending on what team you’re on,” Labrador tells me. He decided it was time for a change.
In 2018, like fellow Freedom Caucus member Ron DeSantis from Florida, he believed he could do more good in politics at the state level and launched a bid to challenge then-Lt. Gov. Brad Little for the open governor’s seat.
Labrador lost, but if he wins this November, the two will have to work together. I ask him if he’s OK potentially working with a former political opponent. “I can work with anybody,” he says, noting that he mostly agrees with what Little has done and would provide his office with the best legal advice and services as attorney general.
In 2016, Labrador met with then-presidential candidate Trump to discuss endorsing his campaign for the White House. Labrador says that he agreed to endorse Trump if he would promise to only nominate Supreme Court justices from the list his campaign had published.
Labrador’s second request was a commitment to combat the nation’s deficit, a matter conservatives considered the “the biggest issue of our time,” he says. Trump listened to Labrador, then said, matter of factly, “Paul Ryan ran on reducing the deficit with Mitt Romney, but did they win?” Labrador answered, “No, sir they did not.”
“Well, I’m not going to make a promise about the deficit and lose this election,” Trump said in response. Trump acknowledged that the nation’s deficit is a “serious issue” but he wasn’t going to make it a central theme of his campaign and let it prevent him from winning the White House.
Labrador was disappointed but “learned something” about him: “Trump told me exactly what he thought even though he disagreed with me.” This was a stark difference from the political “yes, no” answers he had dealt with for years from Republican leadership.
“I think Trump is a bit of an exaggerator at times, but he’s not a liar,” Labrador says. “He tells you straight why he disagrees.” Labrador became one of the first sitting congressmen to back him.
Back at the well-appointed Coeur d’Alene Resort, Labrador is speaking to an audience that came expecting to open their pocketbooks to support his bid. His rationale for running tonight parallels a lot of Idahoans’ fears of the state turning a shade less red. He’s concerned the COVID-19 response has been a slippery slope for the government violating individual rights. He’s not anti-vaccine or anti-mask, he insists, but he is anti-government mandates.
“The government’s role is to give us the best information, then allow each individual to make their own health-risk assessment,” Labrador explains. He believes this is “where a good attorney general” can fight the Biden administration and keep the government from encroaching on Idahoans.
And this gets to a central tension in Labrador’s race.
His opponent, Arkoosh, is not really a Democrat in the traditional sense. In an interview with the Deseret News, Arkoosh told me he was “pretty much unaffiliated” most of his life. But he registered as a Republican earlier this year to vote against Labrador in the GOP primary because he thought his conservative politics were “extremist.” Democrats in the state then approached Arkoosh about challenging Labrador in the general election. The two campaigns have largely extended the debates of the GOP primary, underscoring tensions between what Arkoosh characterized as the “extremist branch” of the party and “the traditional Grand Old Party, moderate wing.”
Labrador rejects the extremist label but readily admits there are rifts within the party. Earlier this month, almost 50 former and current Republican office holders endorsed Arkoosh’s Democratic campaign. “They don’t want to see the attorney general’s office be taken over by a culture warrior,” Arkoosh said, referring to Labrador. “I think we ought to look at potholes rather than politics.”
The GOP primary election earlier this year similarly hinged on debates about the role of Idaho’s attorney general. But Labrador defeated the 20-year incumbent Lawrence Wasden for the Republican Party nomination.
“My opponent thought the office of attorney general is there to defend whatever the bureaucracy of Idaho does. However, I believe we elect an attorney general not to be a personal lawyer for the government per se, but to be a defender of the rights and liberties of the people of Idaho. And we won overwhelmingly,” Labrador notes.
If elected the Office of Attorney General would fulfill its responsibilities of advising the executive and legislative branches, Labrador says, but he openly talks about how the office would also bolster the ranks of other conservative state attorneys general and lawmakers across the country who view their role as defenders of individual and state rights against the “overstepping” of the federal government.
He points out that Idaho was notably absent earlier this year in joining the coalition of conservative states in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, the landmark case last term limiting the regulatory powers of the agency over federal rule-making on climate. As Labrador explains it, with him in office Idaho won’t be absent from these fights.
Conservatives, like Labrador, believe the Founding Fathers’ federalism intended for states to provide a vital check on the government’s actions. Successful state challenges to federal agency power are looking more likely with a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Labrador is preparing to make major changes to the attorney general’s office, he says, including hiring what he calls “the best” lawyers who are conservative and aggressive.
“I want us to win cases decisively and for our legal advice to be respected by everyone, including the state legislature,” Labrador says while reiterating his belief that an attorney general who the state legislature can trust will be beneficial to the state as a whole. “I think the state is going to be really happy with it, even the people who oppose me right now.”
And what of the rumors that Labrador only sees the attorney general’s office as a stepping stone to running for governor again in four years? He smiles and then sighs, “Everybody else seems to know what I’m going to do in four years when I truly have no idea.”