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When Rep. Raul Labrador Votes 'No,' Many Idahoans Say 'Yes!'

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, center, poses with Chad Moffat, left, and Var Reeve, right, who run Boise Mobile Equipment, an Idaho company that makes fire rescue vehicles.
Susan Davis
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, center, poses with Chad Moffat, left, and Var Reeve, right, who run Boise Mobile Equipment, an Idaho company that makes fire rescue vehicles.

It's prom season at Eagle High School in suburban Boise, where seniors are plotting for their futures and grown ups are dispensing life advice. Today's lesson in Jeff Clifford's American government class is courtesy of their congressman, Republican Raul Labrador.

"The relationships that really matter in life — whether you're a teacher, whether you're a professional, whether you're a politician — are those people that are with you before you become somebody," he says.

In other words, never forget the people who loved you when you were a nobody. It's advice Labrador is living by these days, especially now that he's a somebody who is not always the most popular guy at the party.

He is one of three Republicans, along with Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadow, that President Trump criticized on Twitter as road blocks to advancing his agenda in Congress. The president also threatened that Freedom Caucus members would face the wrath of voters in the midterms.

As a founding member of the unruly conservative faction, Labrador is often cast as a villain in tales of Republican failures to pass their agenda on Capitol Hill, but Idahoans like Benjamin Chafetz have a decidedly different take on the Freedom Caucus.

"I think they're fantastic. I love that they defied Trump. I'm sorry, he is not a dictator," Chafetz said at a recent breakfast meeting of The Arid Club, a social group for local business leaders.

Chafetz doesn't think the president's bullying tactics will work on the Freedom Caucus — and he doesn't want them to. "I'm sure he's going to try, but we have wonderful people that have a spine that are going to fight that," he said, in reference to Labrador.

Frequently at public events, Labrador likes to reminds people that he was not an initial Trump supporter in the presidential primary. A self-described conservative with libertarian leanings, he was originally behind Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. When he flamed out, he backed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Then, finally, Trump.

"He wasn't my first choice, he wasn't my second choice, he wasn't even my fifteenth choice," Labrador jokes.

But when he ultimately got on the Trump Train, he stuck to it. Unlike most top Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, Labrador was one of the few Republicans who stood by Trump on the campaign trail after the infamous Access Hollywood tapes leaked. He alluded to that in his Twitter spat with the president, warning Trump to "remember who your real friends are."

After Trump won, Labrador says party leaders thought they could roll the Freedom Caucus with the help of a GOP president.

"One of the funniest things that happened when Trump won is our leadership said, well the Freedom Caucus — or in other words, people like Raul, like Raul Labrador — they're not needed anymore," he says, "Because now that we have Trump in there, we can do what we used to do and we don't need these conservatives to give us a hard time."

Conservatives did give leadership a hard time over the health care bill spearheaded by the speaker. The Freedom Caucus opposed the bill because they said it did not go far enough to make good on their campaign pledge to repeal President Obama's health care law.

Labrador and others were criticized for embarrassing the party and the new president with an early legislative failure. But he says the Freedom Caucus wasn't trying to undermine Trump's presidency, he says they're trying to protect it.

"What I try to remind my Republican colleagues who make that argument is that the Democrats had a lot of unity in 2008, and what did that do for them?" he said in an interview with NPR. "They lost the House, the Senate, now the presidency, governorships, state legislatures. So if you're united in doing something that's really stupid, it's not really that good for the party."

He insists there's no hard feelings between the Freedom Caucus and the president. Conservatives are still working with the White House to try and revive the health care bill — maybe as early as next week. But Labrador is not as forgiving towards House leadership.

"If what our leadership takes from this experience is you have to try and figure out how to quash the Freedom Caucus, it's not going to be a very successful time for them," he says.

There's no evidence there's been any political price to pay back home for bucking the party. Labrador won reelection with nearly 70 percent of the vote last November, outperforming Trump's 64 percent margin in his district. He argues that his constituents always know where he stands and like that, even if they don't agree with it.

"When I'm taking a tough stance, it's because of a principle that I have already articulated to the district," he says.

His popularity was not apparent at a town hall meeting this week, where he mainly heard from the 30 percent of his constituents who didn't vote for him.

"The only good thing I think Raul Labrador has done is to vote down Paul Ryan's version of the Affordable Care Act," said Rachael Seluga, a Democrat who attended the town hall carrying a sign that read: 'I'm a constituent and I'm pissed.' "He voted it down for a reason way different from why I feel it should be voted down, but at least he helped stop it."

Labrador is not interested in changing his mind — but he is thinking about changing his job, considering a run for governor next year. Incumbent GOP Gov. Butch Otter is not running for reelection.

While he is mulling it over, Labrador is taking his own advice. He's spending time over the spring recess with the people who knew him when has a nobody, including Var Reeve, a manager of a local Boise company that builds fire trucks. Reeve and Labrador have known each other since their college days. "He was just a super likeable guy — everybody knew him, everybody liked him," Reeve said.

Labrador toured the plant, and Reeve's partner, Chad Moffat, took him out for a spin. They even let him blare the siren.

"Every child's dream, right?" Labrador said, laughing. "This is awesome."

There's another life lesson: There's always time to enjoy the simple pleasures in life — like a joyride in a fire truck — whether you're a nobody or a somebody.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.

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