In the winter of 2010, Virginia national Republican committeeman Morton Blackwell, president of the Leadership Institute and key conservative power broker, stared down 50 of his friends on behalf of Marco Rubio.
“I asked them to raise their hands,” Blackwell recounts. Did they think Rubio’s primary campaign against the liberal Republican Charlie Crist was one of the most important Senate races of the year? Yes. Were they impressed by Rubio? Definitely, yes. Would they join Blackwell in contributing $1,000 to Rubio’s campaign? A lot of hands raised, but Blackwell peered into the eyes of those who wouldn’t, until many of them relented, as if to say, “Okay, Morton, you got me.”
Back then, Rubio was a relative nobody. Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas), the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, had put the full weight of the party machine behind Crist.
In the early months of his campaign, the situation was so dire that Rubio became “depressed” and contemplated dropping out of the race, according to his autobiography, An American Son. If it weren’t for the support of conservatives nationally — including a National Review cover story in August 2009 — Rubio might well have lost the campaign, potentially ending his political career.
Other than his national name recognition, another thing that has changed since those rocky early days is Rubio’s position on immigration.
“We’ve got to secure the borders in our existing system first before we can even begin to have a conversation about the other elements of immigration,” he said then, adding in a debate that “earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty.”
Rubio’s political migration on this issue has garnered support, or at least acquiescence, from a surprising number of conservatives and Republicans. Some people, though, are experiencing a bit of whiplash, including some of those who helped Rubio at his moment of greatest political peril.
“It was a pivotal issue in the campaign,” said a former Senate aide who supported Rubio back then. “I can’t tell you how excited people were — conservatives on the Hill — to have a conservative Hispanic person running for the Senate who not only stood up for their values, but was willing to do that passionately and eloquently in the most daunting of venues.”
Speaking of Rubio’s new stance on immigration, the aide adds: “I honestly don’t know how to explain it. I’ve never seen anybody so passionately argue against amnesty and then completely flip in two years. It’s just mind-boggling.”
Erick Erickson, whose RedState.com organized “money bombs” to help Rubio in his campaign for the Senate, seconds this view. “I think he has completely reversed himself on the position,” he says. “It’s somewhat bothersome that he refuses to admit a reversal or even an evolution. Somehow trying to reconcile his former opposition to now, it cheapens his image, and I don’t know that he understands that.”
At a closed-door meeting with conservatives two months ago, Blackwell said he warned Rubio that conservatives wouldn’t be able to “betray” their donors and members and support something that didn’t have “actual, foolproof border security in place.”
Rubio has also been receiving input a little closer to home. He lives at the now-famous “C Street House” with Senators Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), who have both offered their counsel. After the Gang of Eight released its bill, Coburn met with Rubio to warn him that its border-security provisions needed serious work, and Lee has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the bill.
Coming into the Senate as a conservative star, Rubio quickly struck up friendships with those on the right. Now that he’s tag-teaming immigration with Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), these friends haven’t held back.
“I talk to him all the time, and I express my concerns and tell him why I can’t support it,” one senator says. But to no avail: The source says that Rubio never really considered walking away from the bill.