Rubio’s Resurgence
Tea-party hero Marco Rubio is gaining credibility with the GOP establishment.


Eliana Johnson

Marco Rubio is flashing across a lot of television sets in Colorado right now. On Wednesday, the Chamber of Commerce began airing ads in the state in both English and Spanish in which Rubio makes the case for Republican representative Cory Gardner, who is challenging incumbent Democratic senator Mark Udall in the November election. Early polls suggest that the race will be among the most competitive of the cycle.

The Chamber is pleased with the results. “We are getting phenomenal feedback at the local level,” says Scott Reed, the organization’s senior political strategist. “We think this is a real incubator for a message and a messenger to appeal to Hispanic voters all over the country, even with a fast-talking Cuban.”

That reaction — and praise from the Chamber that is directly challenging the Tea Party in some races — is one sign of Rubio’s rising stock in the Republican political establishment. Look also to New Hampshire, where Rubio headlined three fundraisers on Friday and where the state’s representative to the Republican National Committee told the Associated Press that Rubio, who rode to office in the tea-party wave of 2010, “comes across as a serious and thoughtful mainstream conservative.”

Rubio seems to have no doubt, telling ABC’s This Week on Sunday — citing his nearly 15 years as a public officeholder — that, yes, he is ready to be president.

Remarks like these are one indication of how Rubio is apt to profit in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes if things continue to break his way — that is, if New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who six months ago was considered the potential front-runner for the Republican nomination, does not bounce back from Bridgegate, and if Jeb Bush decides not to run. In that case, Rubio is the most likely to become the establishment favorite for the nomination, although he will have competition, especially from candidates who are governors.

“The so-called establishment wants to make sure they have folks that can win,” says Republican strategist Kevin Madden. “Rubio clearly has a profile that is very attractive as a national candidate. He can also attract a growing part of the electorate with Hispanic voters and also some moderate to conservative Democrats.”

At the same time, Rubio has far more reach into the tea-party world than do Christie and Bush, the candidates the establishment has already courted — and been spurned by — this campaign season. Christie has long battled skepticism from the right, which remains scornful about his embrace of President Obama days before the 2012 election – he finished dead last in a February poll of tea-party activists. Bush finished second to last in the same poll. Among the party’s most conservative voters, the former Florida governor is handicapped by his support for immigration reform and for the Common Core educational standards, against which the tea-party base is waging a vocal revolt. Bush also lacks the conservative bona fides that would help conservatives overlook his own support for a sweeping immigration overhaul.

In fact, Rubio’s first supporters at the national level were insurgents. The former Florida house speaker came to national political fame as a hero of the tea-party movement. In 2010, former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, now president of the Heritage Foundation, hailed then-candidate Rubio’s “articulate and passionate support for conservative principles” and lamented that he was “being overlooked by some in the Republican party at a time when his leadership is needed most.” Rubio’s insurgent candidacy, which drove former Florida governor Charlie Crist from the Republican party, was endorsed by both the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth.

Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, endorsed Rubio in 2010 and still considers him an anti-establishment force. “It’s ironic to call Rubio an establishment figure, given where he started his Senate race, which is very anti-establishment,” Chocola says. Four years into Rubio’s Senate term, Chocola calls the decision to support his candidacy a “great” one and says he’s “proud to have an association” with Rubio. “We think he’s done a great job,” he adds. “If he did run for president, he’s got a record that would be appealing to many conservatives.”

His rating with the American Conservative Union, which ACU chairman Al Cardenas, a Rubio pal, calls the “gold standard to determine whether you’re a true conservative,” suggests as much. Rubio has consistently scored in the top 10 percent and, in 2013, was one of six senators who scored a perfect 100.