Marco Rubio aims for comeback with conservatives
By: Manu Raju
March 3, 2014 05:03 AM EST
Marco Rubio probably wouldn’t have been the biggest draw in Alabama last year, but last week he had big donors dropping big checks.
The Florida Republican, who championed the Senate immigration bill last year, swung by a state that has taken a tough stand against illegal immigrants and has repeatedly elected the chief opponent of the Senate plan. But last Thursday evening, deep-pocketed Birmingham donors paid up to $32,000 apiece to schmooze with Rubio, raising more than $300,000 for the Senate GOP campaign committee.
Rubio’s foray into the Deep South shows how quickly he has tried to put the bitter immigration fight behind him as he positions himself for what close allies say is an increasingly likely presidential bid in 2016. He is now raising his profile by demanding a more aggressive U.S. response to Russia in the Ukraine crisis, showcasing how the senator has embraced more hawkish foreign policy views than several of his would-be 2016 rivals, like Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
After dropping his push on immigration, Rubio is seeking to rehabilitate his image with much of the GOP base by falling back on his staunch conservative ideology while engaging in a calculated effort to broaden his domestic and foreign policy portfolio. He’s becoming a regular fundraising presence on the campaign trail and plans to play a big role in a handful of key midterm races this fall.
A contingent on the right will never forgive him for backing a bill offering a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and his critics say he jettisoned the plan strictly to preserve his political standing. But in interviews with numerous GOP leaders and influential conservative activists in early primary states, his new push seems to have won over one-time skeptics who are now more open to a prospective Rubio candidacy.
Rubio, who plans to make a decision on whether to run for president either later this year or in early 2015, denies he dropped the immigration push for political purposes. But he acknowledges that his role in the immigration push took a toll on him politically.
“I’m sure there are people who are unhappy with what I did on immigration and will never be supportive of me again,” Rubio said in an interview in the Capitol last week. “But by and large, I think if you look at my approval ratings in different metrics that are out there, I feel like many of my supporters maybe disagreed with me on immigration — and disagreed strongly — but they understand that I’ve been involved in other issues that are important for the country.”
That includes the growing crisis in Ukraine. While his outspokenness on Ukraine could play well with the hawkish wing of his party, it could turn off the GOP’s libertarian faction that is growing more influential. Rubio’s effort to regain conservatives’ trust will be measured on Thursday, when he addresses the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
“I believe people will give him on one issue quite a bit of room,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, the influential Iowa Republican, when asked about the fallout for Rubio’s stance on immigration. “He’s already eight months away from what he did on immigration, and he’s taken on so many other issues to cloud that whole issue.”
Polls show the 2016 GOP presidential race is a wide-open affair, as the 42-year-old Rubio sits on a multimillion dollar war chest — some $2.6 million in his various campaign accounts. Rubio plans to make an appearance in at least one of the early primary states sometime this year, according to several people familiar with the matter, in what will almost certainly intensify chatter about his prospective run. His would-be GOP 2016 rivals, like Paul and Cruz, have already done just that.
Still, some conservatives from early primary states are decidedly skeptical.
“Rubio’s name never comes up here as it relates to presidential politics — except to express disappointment at how he wasted such tremendous potential on the largest Democrat Party voter drive in history,” said Steve Deace, a Des Moines-based conservative talk radio host.
But a range of other conservatives in the early primary states argued that the immigration issue is hardly a death knell for Rubio.
“I was never of the opinion Sen. Rubio suffered irreparable harm among Iowa conservatives during the immigration debate,” said Matt Strawn, the former Iowa GOP chairman.
As a co-author of the sweeping immigration bill that passed the Senate last June, Rubio has had to fend off accusations from conservatives that the legislation would provide “amnesty” to the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. And once the bill passed the Senate last June, he abandoned his advocacy of the plan as House conservatives bashed it.
Rubio refused to pressure House Republicans into taking up the Senate bill, angering proponents of the legislation but endearing himself to the right. He has instead moved on to other issues that fire up the conservative base, such as joining Cruz in the battle to defund Obamacare, and pushed legislation to repeal what Republicans call the “insurance bailout” — a temporary provision in the law allowing the government to backstop some higher-than-anticipated costs for health insurers.
Last week, Rubio got rave reviews from Rush Limbaugh and Iowa activists when the son of Cuban immigrants blasted the Hawkeye State’s veteran Democratic senator, Tom Harkin, in a floor speech over Cuba and Venezuela. Rubio has methodically tried to burnish his foreign policy credentials to carve out a middle ground between the GOP hawks and libertarians in his party, while recently making high-profile swings through Asia and Europe.
In a series of speeches in Washington and in Florida, Rubio is piecing together a domestic policy platform, rolling out proposals to overhaul higher education, such as by allowing the transfer of accredited online courses to traditional colleges, and provide a conservative alternative to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, including a new proposal to implement the earned income tax credit. On Monday, he was scheduled to drop by Google’s Washington headquarters to unveil what his aides call a jobs agenda, pushing measures like new trade agreements, reallocating federal spectrum for commercial wireless services and a tax reform plan he’s developing with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). That event, however, was postponed due to the weather.
In the interview in the Capitol last week, Rubio denied he had begun to exert himself on other issues simply to regain his credibility on the right, saying indignantly: “Which issue did I take on after immigration that I wasn’t supporting before?”
“I was elected here as a constitutional conservative, and all the issues that I supported before immigration and after immigration are the same ones,” Rubio said.
Asked whether he abandoned immigration because of the conservative revolt, Rubio said he was simply being “realistic” because the Senate bill had “no chance” of passing the House. He said Congress should now pass individual pieces of immigration reform that have broad support, such as beefed-up border security, a position in line with GOP dogma. And he blamed President Barack Obama for the bill’s failure in the House, saying conservatives don’t trust the White House to implement the law.
“If anything, I think what everyone around here underestimated is how difficult it is to pass massive pieces of comprehensive legislation on any subject … given the fact that every massive piece of legislation that’s passed over the last 20 years has … by and large been disastrous.”
Despite the touchiness of the issue, Rubio is still in demand on the campaign trail.
The senator has raised money and stumped for Republican House special election candidate David Jolly, and for Gov. Rick Scott in his reelection bid against Rubio’s old foe, Charlie Crist, whom the senator called a “terrible” governor. He has barnstormed at rallies with conservative candidates, such as losing Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Ken Cuccinelli, and his political action committee dropped a six-figure ad buy behind Rep. Tom Cotton’s Senate bid in Arkansas.
He has helped bolster the campaign coffers of the GOP establishment, headlining several high-dollar events for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in New York and Washington — as well as for Karl Rove’s super PAC, American Crossroads. And after nine months of not using his name in its mailers, the Senate Conservatives Fund — an anti-GOP establishment group — praised Rubio in a December message to its supporters, even though it strongly opposed the immigration plan.
Through his leadership PAC, Rubio plans to stay out of contested primaries but will engage heavily in three or four Senate races this fall, potentially with TV ads on behalf of candidates. Already, through independent expenditures and contributions to other candidates, Rubio has dropped $460,000 on behalf of Republicans, something that could ingratiate him with his colleagues ahead of a prospective White House run.
Still, if the immigration issue is revived next Congress, it could come back to haunt him in early primary and caucus states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina next year.
For instance, Erick Erickson, founder of the Red State website, praised Rubio for “keeping his head down and allying with conservatives” since the bill passed the chamber last summer — even though his conservative website sharply criticized the immigration plan.
“I think there will always be those who will never consider him because of immigration, but for most I think they’ll take a fresh look,” Erickson said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama conservative and chief foe of the legislation, said Rubio made a “mistake” in co-authoring the bill, but he said he “really liked how” the Florida Republican repeatedly voiced concerns about the measure as it worked its way through the process. By raising those concerns, however, proponents say Rubio undermined the bill’s chances for success.
Sen. Tim Scott, the conservative from South Carolina who opposed the immigration bill, said the issue “isn’t so toxic” that it’s disqualified Rubio in the state.
But, he cautioned: “If you get it wrong, it’s going to hard to be right in South Carolina.”