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.
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.”