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.”
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.
He may have waged a candidacy against establishment forces, but Rubio was never a typical tea-party candidate. In 2016, that part of his political profile will come in handy. He has crossover appeal. For one, Jeb Bush was, in 2010, one of the primary backers of his tea-party bid. For this reason and others, Madden says, Rubio was never a “perfect fit” in the tea-party world. Nonetheless, according to Madden, conservative voters took to him for his ability to “communicate on our core issues from the heart and to make the intellectual case for conservatives as well as anybody out there.”
There is plenty about the first-term Florida senator that appeals to the party’s traditional establishment.
Rubio’s background, particularly his Cuban-American heritage, is a big part of the draw. Bob Wickers, a former aide to Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, says the party’s establishment is simply “enamored” of Rubio’s background, adding also that Rubio is “not a Cuban American like Ted Cruz is a Cuban American.” That’s a sly acknowledgment that, in the wake of last year’s government shutdown, for which Cruz was the most public face, the Texas senator made few friends among the party’s financial kingmakers. (He raised prodigious amounts of money from grassroots donors.)
Since the disastrous 2012 election, the powers that be in the GOP have reached the consensus view, as expressed in the RNC’s postmortem report produced in the wake of the 2012 race, that the party must court the growing population of Hispanic voters or face demographic oblivion. It contains 98 references to Hispanics and Hispanic voters and recommends greater outreach to them; Rubio is an ideal emissary to that community.
There’s a financial aspect, too. Rubio has already proven that, while he may not be the first choice of traditional Republican donors in 2016, he can raise the sort of money, much of it from the Republican establishment, necessary to launch and sustain a presidential candidacy. His biggest financial supporters include Republican billionaires Paul Singer and Harlan Crow as well as employees of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and the private-equity giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. In his four years in the Senate, he has proven to be a prolific fundraiser, tapping a large donor base in Florida and the political networks of the past three Republican presidential nominees. Last year, he raised $8 million, more than either Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, both of whom are his tea-party colleagues and potential 2016 rivals.
“He talks about economic growth, but he also talks about kitchen-table issues,” says the Chamber’s Reed, a longtime political consultant who ran Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996. “He talks about foreign policy, and he travels the world. He’s building a strong résumé, and he has the ability to be forward-looking, youthful, and positive. Those are sharp contrasts with the rest of the field.”
While there is no doubt about Rubio’s conservatism, he is closer to the party’s mainstream than are his counterparts in the Senate who are also likely to run. Rubio is tainted neither by Paul’s libertarian views, for which he will have to make a hard sell with the establishment, nor by memories of the government shutdown, which could hurt Cruz. “The thing that catches my eye,” says Reed, “is that he’s disciplined and not chasing after every shiny object. That’s one of the key elements to running for national office. That’s easy to translate into good politics.”
Rubio took a significant risk on immigration as part of a bipartisan group of eight senators who joined to propose a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s laws; controversially in the eyes of some Republicans, their plan included a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally. Though the effort ultimately failed, Rubio’s position is likely to benefit him among the party’s establishment forces: The business community, including the Chamber of Commerce, has long supported immigration reform along the lines proposed by Rubio and the Gang of Eight.
Rubio’s brain trust is keenly aware of his broad potential among Republican voters. “What makes Marco unique is the fact that he is a strong conservative with the ability to appeal to base and tea-party voters, but at the same time, he is able to talk about his conservative principles in a way that speaks to voters well beyond the conservative base,” says Rubio strategist Todd Harris. “He blends his conservatism with a hopeful optimism for our future and communicates them in a way that is both unique and quintessentially American.”
It is a potential strength of Rubio’s candidacy, and many in the party’s establishment seem inclined to agree.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.