Popkey: How long will Labrador’s elixir last?

A preview of my Tuesday column for the print edition:

Idaho’s celebrity congressman says he’ll decide on a governor’s race by mid-year.

If Raul Labrador were a sophomore basketball player at Kentucky, the smart money would press him to quit school and enter the NBA draft.

If he really aspires to be governor, 2014 looks like his year. I say this after watching the Republican play an adoring crowd like a cross between Jack Kennedy and Jerry Seinfeld.

Labrador received a standing ovation as he entered the Meridian City Council Chamber Thursday night. During a 90-minute Q & A, he was interrupted by applause like a president at a joint session. He delivered punchlines that had 200 fans howling with laughter.
At the close, he could have sold food supplements. “What I do is really difficult,” Labrador said. “But it would be more difficult if I didn’t get the kind of reception that I received when I walked in this room.”
Running next year could mean challenging Gov. Butch Otter, who has continually held statewide or congressional office for 26 years. Three things would make Labrador leap: family, fearlessness and the fleeting nature of fame.
Labrador, 45, is beginning his third year in Congress. He’s still sleeping on a mattress in his Capitol Hill office, while his wife raises the family in Eagle. He gets four-day weekends, but the cross-country commute’s a bear, and he makes no bones about missing the four of his five kids still at home.
He made his name as a risk-taking legislator, who defied Otter on electing a GOP party chairman and transportation funding, won what was considered a longshot GOP primary in 2010 and then unseated an incumbent.
Otter, 70, would be formidable because of decades of good will, hearty backing from big funders and a distrust of Labrador among Main Street businesspeople.
But Labrador’s popularity may never be higher. His profile hit new heights with his snubbing of Speaker John Boehner, which brought praise from questioner Carol Menges. “It must not have been real pleasant,” she said.
“Oh, it was a breeze,” he replied.
Labrador gets media attention spanning from four “Meet the Press” appearance to his maiden interview with Christian radio host Hugh Hewitt, who talked with Labrador about immigration last week.
“Beautiful job!” George Prang told Labrador. “I was so surprised to hear you come on there.”
Prang wanted to talk about the botched “Fast and Furious” gun-running sting and Labrador said he still hopes to force out Attorney General Eric Holder. Labrador reminded a crowd that didn’t need reminding that Holder couldn’t place him during a House hearing. Anticipating another such moment, Labrador said, “He didn’t know what state I was from. I’m going to put a little plaque under my name that says, ‘Idaho,’ so he always remembers me.”
Labrador blamed both parties for the country’s debt crisis. “We always complain as Republicans that Democrats love to tax and spend, but the problem is that Republicans love to borrow and spend.”
He noted cultural differences. “One of the things that scares me the most is people who live and work in Washington are completely unaware of what you are  going through. … It’s because everyone in Washington thinks this is Monopoly money.”
Mixed with that populism, Labrador also had tough love. When Alan Fox urged him to quit calling Social Security an entitlement, Labrador said, “Yes, you’ve paid into it, but just realize that most people who live a full life are going to take out a lot more than they put into the system. That’s why it needs reform.”
He promised to defend gun rights after an armed Charles Porter said the 2nd Amendment is “a line in the sand,” “a deal breaker,” and that “all bets are off” if any restrictions pass. But Labrador backed a legal process to strip the mentally ill of their guns.
Frank Root asked why the Obamas have been able to travel so widely on the taxpayers’ dime. Labrador said Congress has been reluctant to leash presidents, but added, “Can you imagine a Republican president going to Hawaii in the middle of a recession?”
Then, Labrador allowed, “I have to be a little bit understanding that the president is from Hawaii — ” but was immediately interrupted by laughs, groans, boos and applause. He smiled broadly, waved his hands and finally said, “Enough! OK?”
“I understand that’s where his home is and he has to go there,” bringing more laughter. But Labrador then drew a line between himself and the birthers. “Yes, I think he was born in the United States and that we just need to live with it. The way to defeat him is to defeat him at the ballot box.”
Later, I asked Labrador to assess how big a proportion of the GOP primary electorate was represented in the Meridian crowd and what it augured for a race for governor.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I do know that I’m proud of the work we’re doing. I think I’m doing the right thing right now. The people of Idaho give me that reception everywhere I go.”
Labrador knows events can swiftly change the political landscape. If he wants to seize the moment, he’ll do it soon.

Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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