Marco Rubio is one of the most popular Republicans in America, but conservatives aren’t swooning over his salesmanship on immigration.
They like the Florida senator — he wowed them three years ago when he won a Senate seat and pushed Charlie Crist out of the Republican party — but they aren’t enamored with the Gang of Eight, and they’re not eager to support its proposal.
This is a simmering problem for Rubio and his allies. If his pitch fails to rally conservatives, the entire project could collapse, just as it did five years ago when conservatives rejected, and then helped to kill, a bipartisan bill.
Rubio has carefully been making the case for his plan, which includes a path to legalization and beefed-up border security. But opponents — especially the talk-radio crowd — remain skeptical. “I must tell you, I just don’t understand this, Senator,” Rush Limbaugh told Rubio last week. “I don’t understand why we’re doing something that the Democrats are salivating over.” That kind of wariness is feeding broader unease.
But as the legislation moves ahead, Rubio is betting on his ability to woo the Right. Every afternoon, he seems to be holed up in his Capitol Hill office calling yet another hesitant conservative talker. Last Thursday, he even went to visit many of them at a Washington, D.C., hotel, where there was a summit for the bill’s talk-radio foes organized by the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
For an hour, the freshman Republican went from table to table, speaking passionately about the bill’s merits. As I shadowed Rubio, it was striking to see how much he is personally admired by the colorful conservative pundits who broadcast on local AM stations, and by the bigger syndicated names like Limbaugh. They still believe, without a doubt, that he’s a top contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and they love that he’s already a national force.
But when it comes to immigration, they aren’t buying it.
The whole scene plays out uncomfortably. Rubio is the young salesman everyone invites inside for a cup of coffee, but sends off with only a smile and a handshake.
“Here he is, the gang leader of what they call the Gang of Ocho,” says Lars Larson, an Oregon-based commentator, as Rubio takes a seat at his booth. Rubio grimaces slightly. “Oh, that’s a Senate term,” he says reassuringly. “Well, you’ve got this thousand-plus-page bill,” Larson continues. “No, it’s 840 pages, but anyway,” Rubio says quickly. Larson shrugs and keeps banging away. Their rapport is friendly, but Larson isn’t looking to be swayed.
Near the end of radio row, Rubio encounters Rusty Humphries, a boisterous former shock jock from Phoenix. He is sitting in front of a banner that’s decorated with flames and reads “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” — them being politicians like Rubio who are pushing for comprehensive reform. Rubio eyes the banner and takes a seat. Humphries wonders aloud whether the federal government can be trusted to secure its borders. Rubio listens calmly and then defends his bill, but it’s more of a lecture than an interview.
Of course, Rubio deserves credit for engaging with his most vocal critics; he doesn’t mind the tense exchanges that drive many politicians to their wits’ end. He’s been doing these kinds of interviews with the conservative media since January, when he first started to talk about the importance of rethinking national immigration policy.
But it will only get more difficult. Senate Republicans such as Alabama’s Jeff Sessions keep slamming the bill, and outside groups such as the Heritage Foundation are fighting it, too. Rubio’s advisers say he will continue to hustle and reach out to fellow conservatives. To succeed, he may not have to win total converts, but simply keep conservative opposition from being the loudest voice, and the deciding factor.
Rubio is doing his best to win over conservatives beyond the radio dial. His partners at Americans for Tax Reform and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are holding weekly Friday meetings with activists, looking for ways to promote the legislation. And on his Senate’s website, Rubio’s staff has published a “myth busting” policy guide.
Yet conservative talk shows will still have much say over the consensus of the Right. For now, they’re not leaning in his direction.
“Senator Rubio is a force of nature, he’s a force of energy, and he is a genuine conservative,” Limbaugh told his listeners last week after his interview. “But the bill itself, I’m never going to understand it.”
Conservatives like Rubio, but his sales pitch — not so much.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.