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.
Rubio had been making all the moves one might expect of a leading 2016 candidate. He delivered a major speech in Iowa just days after the 2012 election, accepted the Jack Kemp Foundation’s Leadership Award in December, and gave the Republican response to the State of the Union address in February.
“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