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.
Former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, now president of the Heritage Foundation, was probably Rubio’s single most important political ally in 2010, endorsing him in June 2009, baffling Washington, D.C., operatives, since Rubio looked like such a weak candidate. The Senate Conservatives Fund was Rubio’s third-largest donor, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, giving him over $100,000. A money bomb they later organized raised $400,000.
DeMint also has a record as a top immigration hawk, helping derail the 2007 immigration bill. DeMint and his allies are shocked at Rubio’s change of heart. But those in his orbit say DeMint isn’t necessarily angry: he can separate disagreements from relationships, they say.
“Marco’s a great friend, and that won’t change just because we have a serious policy disagreement,” DeMint notes. “He’s trying to find a real solution, but this bill has been orchestrated by Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer and is nothing more than amnesty with empty promises on security and legal reform.”
But, in part because former lawmakers are banned from lobbying for two years after they leave office, DeMint and Rubio have barely spoken, even as Heritage and Rubio-world are practically at war. (Heritage takes the lobbying ban so seriously that Erickson said he’s forced to hold separate dinner parties for his friends at Heritage and those working on the Hill when he comes to D.C. “It’s a nightmare,” he jokes.)
In D.C. and on the airwaves, the fight over the bill is pitched. Heritage recently launched a $100,000 ad campaign against the bill, complete with a hard-hitting spot that features an unflattering photograph of the Florida senator and accuses him of backing “amnesty.”
For their part, supporters of the bill have been vicious in their fight against a Heritage study estimating that the long-term cost of paying for entitlements for the newly legalized immigrants would run in the range of $5 to $6 trillion. “It’s a lot of these outside groups and people from Rubio’s office bashing the Heritage Foundation, which is really, really disappointing in my mind,” Erickson said.
Prior to releasing the Gang of Eight’s bill, Rubio’s office held a perfunctory, 30-minute meeting with Heritage, on the same day the bill was released. It wasn’t the only meeting they’d held on the subject, but there wasn’t a lot of collaboration. At one point, Heritage officials told Rubio aides to stop saying around town that they were “working with” Heritage.
Senate aides and conservative activists said the Gang of Eight’s bill didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. During a period when Rubio worked on a Republican version of the DREAM Act and hired Cesar Conda, his chief of staff who is known for having relatively liberal views on immigration, conservatives had some worries.
Rubio met individually with conservative senators on his version of the DREAM Act, but his pitch was that it would help prevent the Democrats from forcing through a much worse, comprehensive “amnesty” bill.
Still, it seems people can’t help but like Rubio personally, whatever their views on the Gang of Eight’s bill.
A few times, Rubio has acknowledged the shift in his thinking on immigration. He told Sean Hannity that he changed his views when he determined that beefing up enforcement first wouldn’t work.
That was my position: Let’s do the fence first and then let’s worry about it. Here is the problem and why I kind of felt that the other way may be better. The 11 million that are here now illegally, we want to know who they are as soon as possible. We don’t want that number to become 12, 13, 14. Because we cut this off, we say you had to have been here by December of 2011. You have to be able to prove that you were here by December of 2011. Well, I don’t want this word to get out that once [we] are done securing the border, then [we] are going to legalize people, because then you will have a rush.
“There’s something to that, to the extent you advertise there’s going to be an amnesty,” said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a leading critic of the bill. “But he’s really identifying a problem that is in any comprehensive bill,” since by its nature, it will set in law a date at which illegal immigrants will achieve citizenship. If critics can’t have separate, piecemeal bills, their ideal situation, they’d much prefer that any comprehensive bill put border security first; the largely toothless trigger structure in the Gang of Eight’s legislation does not pass muster, in their view.
Interestingly, earlier in his career Rubio prompted anger from liberals as he moved rightward, as they saw it, on immigration in the 2010 campaign. After initially saying the controversial Arizona immigration law raised the specter of a “police state,” Rubio backed off, praising a slightly revised version because it “hit the right notes.” In The Rise of Marco Rubio, Raúl Martinez, the Democratic former mayor of Hialeah, Fla., and an early Rubio ally, is quoted in reference to Rubio’s apparent move rightward on the issue in 2010: This was “the new Marco,” Martinez said, “the I-want-to-be-a-senator-at-any-cost Marco.”
With the Gang of Eight’s bill headed for passage this week, it’s clear that Rubio’s views on the topic have been a moving target at least since 2010.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter at National Review Online.