Why Florida’s Junior Senator Could Win the Republican Nomination for President
By Jacob Fass
Conventional wisdom holds that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. Despite the latest controversies surrounding her foundation’s foreign fundraising and disappearing emails, the clamor on the left for an Elizabeth Warren candidacy, and media desire to cover a contest instead of a coronation, Hillary Clinton is better positioned to win a presidential primary then any non-incumbent in history.
Conventional wisdom also holds that the Republican presidential nomination is, essentially, a two-way contest between Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. Although the media has covered some long shots like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and some no shots like neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Texas senator Ted Cruz, the dominant narrative has been one in which Walker and Bush are the two viable candidates, each fighting for their conflicting vision of what the Republican Party should be. Here the conventional wisdom is wrong. Bush and Walker are surely serious candidates with access to significant resources and strong support among different elements of the party. But they are not the only serious candidates in the race. Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, who is announcing his bid on April 13th at Miami’s Freedom Tower, is also well positioned to win the GOP nomination. In fact, Rubio may be a stronger candidate than either Bush or Walker.
On paper, Marco Rubio is perfect: a young, charismatic, good looking and eloquent presidential candidate. As a Florida native and the child of Cuban refugees, Rubio has the ability to take Florida, the ever-important swing state, and a substantial portion of the Hispanic vote, which Republicans have struggled with in recent elections. His remarkable victory in 2010, in which he forced the state’s Republican governor out of the party and won the general election with nearly 50 percent of the vote in a three way field, served as inspiration to conservative primary challengers everywhere. He is no stranger to a challenge.
Yet Rubio has received far less attention than Walker or Bush. When Rubio arrived in Washington, he was hailed as the Republican version of Barack Obama and the future of the party. He attracted talented staff and advisors, all of whom wanted to associate with a future presidential nominee. But, in 2013, Rubio got involved with bipartisan immigration negotiations. This seemed like a reasonable decision at the time. Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election in large part because of his abysmal performance among Hispanic and Asian voters, two constituencies which care passionately about immigration reform. As one of the Senate’s two Hispanic Republicans, Rubio was a natural choice to participate in these discussions. Indeed, the legislation, crafted in part by Rubio, passed the Senate with an overwhelming bipartisan majority. But the crises of last summer, when tens of thousands of migrant children poured over the southern border, sparked a right wing backlash against amnesty and spooked the House Republican leadership, where reform was left to wither and die.
Rubio looked ineffectual, and as the architect of a policy intensely unpopular with the Republican base, his standing as a 2016 presidential candidate diminished. Add an embarrassing State of the Union response involving a small bottle of water, and Rubio was soon relegated to the periphery of the GOP field. But don’t count Rubio out. As politicians like Romney, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Bush, Walker, and Paul soaked up attention from the media, Rubio has been quietly wooing some of the most important figures in Republican politics, men and women with the power to make or break a presidential nominee.
His remarkable victory in 2010, in which he forced the state’s Republican governor out of the party and won the general election with nearly 50 percent of the vote in a three way field, served as inspiration to conservative primary challengers everywhere. He is no stranger to a challenge.
Presidential nominations are not only decided in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where early primaries and caucuses are held. These contests are important, but the jockeying begins long before with the so-called invisible primary, in which candidates court the activists, donors, elected officials, and policy experts with influence in the party. The support of these party elites is key to a presidential nomination.
Both Bush and Walker have done well in the invisible primary thus far. Walker has staked out a claim as the serious conservative in the race. His bitter struggles against Wisconsin’s public sector unions have endeared him to the Tea Party, and he has emphasized his evangelical roots and blue collar background. Bush has also run an impressive campaign, raising millions and millions of dollars from establishment donors while stressing the need for the party to expand its appeal to younger, poorer, and minority voters. With Walker serving as the confrontational conservative and Jeb Bush as the electable moderate, it might be asked how Rubio could possibly distinguish himself. And Bush, as a Florida resident, challenges Rubio’s claim to the Republican vote in the sunshine state.
But this analysis ignores Rubio’s political personality, which blends Walker’s and Bush’s strengths while shedding some of their weaknesses. Although Walker has a strong footprint in the early states and has inspired the Republican base with his pugnacious rhetoric, some of his comments about foreign policy and the President’s faith have not engendered confidence in his ability to handle the national spotlight and win a general election. While Bush is loved by the vast network that put his father and brother in the White House, conservative activists view him skeptically because of his moderate positions on education and immigration. Additionally, many Republicans feel that swing voters are suffering from Bush fatigue, which may weaken his chances in general election against Hillary Clinton. If the American people are given a choice between returning to Bush years of the 2000’s or the Clinton years of the 1990’s, there will be no contest. Republican elites understand and fear this.
Given these facts, Rubio has the opportunity to fill a void. He is a candidate who is both conservative and electable, able to win over grassroots Tea Party activists and wealthy Republican donors, ideologically pure enough to win the nomination but with enough universal appeal to succeed in a general election. Like Barack Obama, who used his rhetorical skill and biographical appeal during the primary to convince both moderates and liberals that he was on their side, Rubio could assemble a coalition of moderates and conservatives broader than any other candidate. Additionally, as a senator who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rubio has more foreign policy experience than nearly any other Republican hopeful. Foreign policy will be key in 2016 as rising conflict in Europe and the Middle East has shifted attention abroad. Rubio’s foreign policy is perfectly in line with the militantly hawkish beliefs of Republican voters and check writers. He strongly supports Israel’s Likud government and opposes negotiations with Iran, while advocating for an aggressive posture toward Russia in Ukraine. As a Cuban, he has served as the face of Republican opposition to Obama’s rapprochement with the Castro regime.
The only question is whether or not Rubio will have the resources to be competitive. There is reason to believe that he will. Although Bush has gone on a fundraising whirlwind, raising millions of dollars per day for his Super Pac Right to Rise, campaign finance law after Citizens United means that the loyalty of one dedicated billionaire can be more important than the support of dozens of millionaires. Mitt Romney, who locked up support in every GOP fundraising stronghold, lost the Iowa and South Carolina contests to Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. These were two weak candidates propelled to victory by the backing of Foster Friess, an investment manager, and Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate, respectively. Fries and Adelson were willing to spend tens of millions of dollars on candidates who had no chance of winning the Republican nomination. Rubio, a far more viable contender, will surely attract his own deep-pocketed supporters. In fact, billionaire car dealer Norman Braman has already announced his eagerness to spend at least 10 million dollars advancing Rubio’s fortunes. Even Sheldon Adelson, who was the largest donor during the 2012 election cycle, has met with Rubio after expressing concern with Jeb Bush’s advisor James Baker, who criticized Israeli policy at a recent conference.
None of this is to say that Rubio is a sure bet to win the nomination. Walker and Bush are both strong candidates and the field is one of the most unsettled in recent history. Under the stress of media interviews, debates, rallies, and policy speeches, some candidates may flourish and others may flounder. But betting in politics, like betting in sports, is a function of odds. Right now there is no question that pundits and the media are undervaluing Rubio. Over the next several months, he is certainly the candidate to watch.