(UPDATED, 1:19 p.m., with statement from Fulcher.)
U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador joined the race for governor Tuesday morning.
The widely anticipated move came with little fanfare — and no public events. The 1st Congressional District representative filed paperwork with the secretary of state’s office, naming a campaign treasurer.
William L. Spence of the Lewiston Tribune first reported on the filing Tuesday morning, and the secretary of state’s office confirmed the filing.
Labrador joins a crowded GOP field in the race to succeed retiring Gov. Butch Otter — and a wide-open May 2018 primary that could split Republican ranks.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little entered the race nearly a year ago, and carries Otter’s backing. Former state Sen. Russell Fulcher jumped back into the race in 2016, after mounting a spirited but unsuccessful conservative bid to unseat Otter in 2014. Boise developer and physician Tommy Ahlquist announced his bid earlier this year, and has pledged to wage a high-profile campaign.
In a statement Tuesday, Labrador swiftly tried to distance himself from the GOP establishment.
“Idaho needs a proven conservative leader who will stand against the special interests and politicians that have picked the winners and losers in our state Capitol for too long,” he said. “Idaho needs a strong leader who will make government fair for everyone.”
Labrador, an immigration attorney, has cast himself as a political outsider throughout his political career. As a member of the Legislature, Labrador publicly clashed with Otter when the governor made an unsuccessful push to increase gas taxes. The four-term congressman is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives that has sometimes clashed with GOP leadership. Labrador has also publicly traded barbs with fellow Republican Mike Simpson — Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District representative, who is endorsing Little.
While hardly unexpected, Tuesday’s filing comes after Labrador has been at the eye of a public relations storm over health care reform.
During a town hall meeting in Lewiston Friday — held one day after Labrador voted for a GOP bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act — Labrador said, “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” The statement went viral, drawing visceral reactions in Idaho and nationally. Labrador conceded the statement “wasn’t very elegant,” but criticized the news media for focusing on one five-second portion of his comment.
While Ahlquist took to Twitter over the weekend to lampoon Labrador’s health care remark, he took a more low-key approach in a statement Tuesday morning. “I welcome Congressman Labrador to the race and look forward to a spirited campaign. The congressman will bring his experience in Washington, D.C. to the race, and I am excited to continue sharing my conservative message of building an even better Idaho with a fresh approach and new ideas.”
Little’s statement was more pointed.
“Idaho is not Washington, D.C., and I would like to welcome Congressman Labrador back home to the place where we balance our budget and conservative ideals guide us each day. Idahoans, including myself, look forward to hearing from Congressman Labrador about the accomplishments he has made while being in Congress for more than six years.”
In a statement Tuesday, Fulcher cited recent history — and sought to appeal to his own conservative base.
“In 2014, (Labrador) endorsed me in my race for governor, stating he supported me because of my ‘political courage and fresh ideas.’ He said that I would ‘work to reduce our dependence on Washington, D.C., make the tax code more competitive, reduce regulation, and give Idaho the chance to fulfill its promise.’ I suspect he still believes that.”
Labrador’s move into the governor’s race creates another wide-open campaign — for his seat in Congress. Republicans have held the 1st District seat since 2010, when Labrador unseated one-term Rep. Walt Minnick, a Democrat.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.