Senator Marco Rubio began this year amid buzz that he was the logical choice to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. He is likely to finish it on a decidedly lower note, partly removed from the national spotlight, eclipsed by the rising star from Texas, Ted Cruz.
Last week, attendees at the conservative Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., overwhelmingly chose Cruz as their preferred GOP candidate for 2016. The freshman senator blew away the competition with 42 percent of the vote. Rubio, meanwhile, placed fifth, behind Senator Rand Paul, political novice Dr. Ben Carson, and unsuccessful 2012 candidate Rick Santorum. Granted, fewer than 1,000 people took part in the survey, but the results reinforce what has become obvious to political observers: Ted Cruz is the undisputed darling of the Right, and Rubio’s stock has fallen considerably.
“Everyone wants to see him succeed,” a senior GOP aide told National Review Online in January, which was right around the time that Rubio joined the so-called Gang of Eight, which led the effort in the Senate to pass a comprehensive immigration-reform bill.
Rubio’s credibility with the conservative base proved critical to the legislation’s eventual passage. His status as a rising star within the GOP — and conventional wisdom about the GOP’s demoralizing defeat in the 2012 presidential race — earned the Gang of Eight a fair hearing from right-wing heavyweights such as Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Sean Hannity. Rubio’s “ideological pause,” in the words of one aide, helped the bill gather steam by blunting the early opposition from the right.
Although the Gang of Eight ultimately succeeded in passing its bill, with 68 votes in the Senate, the immigration debate clearly took a political toll on Rubio, as evidenced by his reluctance to lobby the House to pass the Senate bill. His poll numbers have taken a hit. Only 14 out of 46 Senate Republicans would end up backing the Gang of Eight legislation, and despite Rubio’s tireless advocacy, the conservative base remained unsold.
Rubio’s conservative critics saw this coming. The Gang of Eight (or any political venture involving Senator Chuck Schumer, for that matter) was a trap, they warned, and the Republican star was bound to pay a price. The legislation itself — more than a thousand pages long, crafted behind closed doors, and backed by deep-pocketed interest groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO — was reminiscent of Obamacare, and embodied just about everything conservatives distrust about Washington in general, and the Republican party in particular, too.
“The base wants a leader who they feel is not going to sell them out,” says a conservative GOP aide. “They’re deeply distrustful of the establishment, and immigration is one of those issues where the base feels they were sold out.”
Of course, Rubio launched his national political career as an anti-establishment figure, defeating Charlie Crist, the moderate-Republican governor who would go on to renounce his party affiliation and earn himself a speaking slot at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. However, some conservatives argue that, after being elected to the Senate, Rubio did little to establish a “reservoir of trust” with the conservative base, which left him limited political flexibility to keep pushing for a deal on immigration reform.
“The base is not about personalities, it’s about trusting that you will fight for the things I believe in,” says another conservative aide. “Rubio never really did anything before immigration reform to build up that trust, and he hasn’t done anything since then to stand out and say to conservatives: ‘You were right about me, I will stand, fight, and take shots from the establishment.’”
Enter Ted Cruz. Like Rubio, he ran against and defeated the establishment GOP candidate. Cruz promised to shake things up, to be a different kind of senator. “If I go to Washington and just have a good voting record, I will consider myself a failure,” he said repeatedly on the campaign trail. He has certainly lived up to his promise, most recently by leading the effort to defund Obamacare, battling considerable skepticism from members of his own party and waging a 21-hour filibuster on the Senate floor in defense of the strategy. Meanwhile, Cruz’s voting record, as scored by Heritage Action, is a perfect 100 percent, compared to Rubio’s 86 percent
Cruz’s rapid assent has been compared to that of Barack Obama, who as a freshman senator went out of his way to endear himself to his party’s base and position himself to run for higher office in the future. “It’s obvious that he came here with a very different approach, to elevate himself and propel himself to national aspirations,” a GOP strategist tells National Review Online. But Cruz has also become a powerful force within Congress, wielding considerable influence with conservatives in the House. His efforts have almost singlehandedly foiled House speaker John Boehner’s plans on multiple occasions.
In what some view as an effort to curry favor with the base, Rubio joined Cruz in the campaign to defund Obamacare, but he has played a conspicuously subdued role, to the point where it is easy to forget that he is involved at all. “No one can say that Marco Rubio is the face of the shutdown,” says a senior GOP aide. Of course, that might not be wholly a bad thing, given the extent to which Cruz has alienated members of his own party over the past few months.
“Cruz has raised his profile on the back of his colleagues, including some of his most conservative colleagues,” the GOP strategist says. “These institutions work on personal relationships, so if you spend all your time pissing off your colleagues, you’re not going to get much done.”
Rubio, meanwhile, has continued to work hard behind the scenes. Confrontational tactics simply aren’t his style, and even if they were, it would be difficult to surpass Cruz in that regard. He has also been quietly raising money — $2 million between July and September, more than double Cruz’s haul over that same period. His focus remains on the Senate, and on advancing conservative policy ideas.
“In 2010, people were already telling Marco he would be vice president in two years,” says Pat Shortridge, a GOP strategist who worked on Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign. “He’s always said that you don’t ask for the job of United States senator to use it as a stepping stone to something else. Just work hard, do the right thing, and wherever it takes you, be happy with it.”
GOP strategists warn that it is far too early to predict how this year’s events will play in the 2016 Republican primary, assuming that both Rubio and Cruz decide to run. “I think that through the lens and optics of 2016, there are a lot of other things that will come up between now and then that will put different people in the spotlight,” says GOP consultant Javier Ortiz. “It’s a function of the news cycle, and which people choose to make themselves visible on a particular issue.”
Republicans don’t necessarily agree that Cruz has “eclipsed” Rubio over the past several months. “I don’t think it’s accurate to say that they’ve traded places,” says a senior GOP aide. “Rubio has clearly lost some of his luster among conservatives because of immigration, but I think conservatives who want to win national elections will probably find more to like in Rubio than Cruz at this point.”
But for the moment, anyway, Cruz’s aggressive style seems to be more in line with what most conservatives want. “The base is not looking for a conciliator,” says Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a friend of Rubio’s. “They’re not looking for someone who is good at compromising, who can make peace with the other side. They’re looking for someone who will stand up to a very aggressive, disrespectful liberal opposition that’s standing out there with bare knuckles winding up at us every chance they get.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.