He may have waged a candidacy against establishment forces, but Rubio was never a typical tea-party candidate. In 2016, that part of his political profile will come in handy. He has crossover appeal. For one, Jeb Bush was, in 2010, one of the primary backers of his tea-party bid. For this reason and others, Madden says, Rubio was never a “perfect fit” in the tea-party world. Nonetheless, according to Madden, conservative voters took to him for his ability to “communicate on our core issues from the heart and to make the intellectual case for conservatives as well as anybody out there.”
There is plenty about the first-term Florida senator that appeals to the party’s traditional establishment.
Rubio’s background, particularly his Cuban-American heritage, is a big part of the draw. Bob Wickers, a former aide to Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, says the party’s establishment is simply “enamored” of Rubio’s background, adding also that Rubio is “not a Cuban American like Ted Cruz is a Cuban American.” That’s a sly acknowledgment that, in the wake of last year’s government shutdown, for which Cruz was the most public face, the Texas senator made few friends among the party’s financial kingmakers. (He raised prodigious amounts of money from grassroots donors.)
Since the disastrous 2012 election, the powers that be in the GOP have reached the consensus view, as expressed in the RNC’s postmortem report produced in the wake of the 2012 race, that the party must court the growing population of Hispanic voters or face demographic oblivion. It contains 98 references to Hispanics and Hispanic voters and recommends greater outreach to them; Rubio is an ideal emissary to that community.
There’s a financial aspect, too. Rubio has already proven that, while he may not be the first choice of traditional Republican donors in 2016, he can raise the sort of money, much of it from the Republican establishment, necessary to launch and sustain a presidential candidacy. His biggest financial supporters include Republican billionaires Paul Singer and Harlan Crow as well as employees of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and the private-equity giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. In his four years in the Senate, he has proven to be a prolific fundraiser, tapping a large donor base in Florida and the political networks of the past three Republican presidential nominees. Last year, he raised $8 million, more than either Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, both of whom are his tea-party colleagues and potential 2016 rivals.
“He talks about economic growth, but he also talks about kitchen-table issues,” says the Chamber’s Reed, a longtime political consultant who ran Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996. “He talks about foreign policy, and he travels the world. He’s building a strong résumé, and he has the ability to be forward-looking, youthful, and positive. Those are sharp contrasts with the rest of the field.”
While there is no doubt about Rubio’s conservatism, he is closer to the party’s mainstream than are his counterparts in the Senate who are also likely to run. Rubio is tainted neither by Paul’s libertarian views, for which he will have to make a hard sell with the establishment, nor by memories of the government shutdown, which could hurt Cruz. “The thing that catches my eye,” says Reed, “is that he’s disciplined and not chasing after every shiny object. That’s one of the key elements to running for national office. That’s easy to translate into good politics.”
Rubio took a significant risk on immigration as part of a bipartisan group of eight senators who joined to propose a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s laws; controversially in the eyes of some Republicans, their plan included a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally. Though the effort ultimately failed, Rubio’s position is likely to benefit him among the party’s establishment forces: The business community, including the Chamber of Commerce, has long supported immigration reform along the lines proposed by Rubio and the Gang of Eight.
Rubio’s brain trust is keenly aware of his broad potential among Republican voters. “What makes Marco unique is the fact that he is a strong conservative with the ability to appeal to base and tea-party voters, but at the same time, he is able to talk about his conservative principles in a way that speaks to voters well beyond the conservative base,” says Rubio strategist Todd Harris. “He blends his conservatism with a hopeful optimism for our future and communicates them in a way that is both unique and quintessentially American.”
It is a potential strength of Rubio’s candidacy, and many in the party’s establishment seem inclined to agree.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.