Alex Conant, previously the chief spokesman in Marco Rubio’s Senate office, moved to the Florida senator’s Political Action Committee, Reclaim America, on Monday. While Rubio could easily return Conant to Capitol Hill if he were to suddenly decide against a presidential bid, the move is yet another indication that he’s going all-in on a run for the highest office in the land.
The official line remains that Rubio is still mulling a presidential run, and while he’s close to a decision, he hasn’t reached one yet. It’s a line with clear political upside for Team Rubio: Keeping a low profile for the moment allows the senator to bide his time, waiting to strike until Scott Walker or one of the other current front-runners stumbles, opening up a lane.
It’s a higher-stakes gamble for the first-term senator than for most; Rubio has said repeatedly that he will not run for president and reelection to the Senate simultaneously. Under Florida law, he cannot appear on the ballot as a candidate for two different offices in November 2016. (Theoretically, he could drop his presidential bid before the state’s May 6 filing deadline for the U.S. Senate race.)
There are good omens and bad ones for Rubio’s bid. He’s undeniably one of the party’s brightest stars and best communicators, and rarely if ever turns in a bad speech or appearance. He wowed the audience at the conference of conservative donors hosted by the Koch brothers in Rancho Mirage, California, and garnered good reviews at CPAC and the Club for Growth’s conference in Palm Beach, Florida, last week.
But six months ago, a Jeb Bush presidential campaign didn’t seem like a likely scenario; now Bush is arguably the frontrunner, a potential juggernaut who intends to vacuum up $100 million from the biggest GOP donors and build an unassailable advantage as early as possible.
“These guys are running different campaigns: Jeb Bush is going to be the New York Yankees, and Marco Rubio is going to have to play moneyball,” says Florida-based Republican consultant Rick Wilson. (“Moneyball” refers to a Michael Lewis book detailing the philosophy of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, who elevated the competitiveness of his team by looking for small advantages and maximizing cost-effectiveness in his strategy.)
“Marco’s going to have to live in a more constrained environment. He’s just not going to be able to put $100 million up,” Wilson said “No one else is besides Bush.”
One Florida Republican who helped reelect Governor Rick Scott says, “Donors, former members, movers and shakers of Tallahassee, lobbyists, I get the sense they’re [all] going with Jeb.”
Florida is a key state for Republicans with presidential ambitions, and not just because of its 29 electoral votes. A significant number of America’s millionaires and billionaires keep summer homes in the state and make it their official residence, drawn by its hospitable weather and lack of an income tax. If you want to run for president, it’s good to have a lot of wealthy friends and allies residing in Florida.
In fact, the state is actually home to four Republican presidential contenders this cycle. Besides Bush and Rubio, Mike Huckabee lives in Blue Mountain Beach, Florida, and Ben Carson owns a home in Palm Beach. Neither Huckabee nor Carson is likely to compete for Florida’s biggest donors; Huckabee enjoys a solid evangelical grassroots fundraising base, and the committee to draft Ben Carson raised nearly $13 million last year.
But both Rubio and Bush will be raising funds from coast to coast, and their existing fundraising networks overlap partially, like a Venn Diagram. The bigger, more experienced Bush team may have the early advantage, but there’s no indication that Rubio’s past encounters with donors have been dispiriting enough to deter his ambitions.
Rubio’s book tour for American Dreams took him to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida, and amounted to an effective test-run for a campaign launch. A source close to Rubio says the senator and his team were “really encouraged by the reception in each of [those] four states. With little advance planning, there were several hundred people at every stop. Good private meetings, and of course, local radio, TV, print interviews. We’re really encouraged.”
Rubio’s expected presidential bid also leaves open the question of who will fill his Senate seat in 2016. Press accounts mention a small army of Florida Republicans as potential Senate candidates, with the state’s chief financial officer, Jeff Atwater, perhaps the most open about his intentions.
No less than four major political news outlets have written stories about Rubio being pressured to remain in the Florida senate race. Some of this may genuinely reflect the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s concerns about maintaining control of Congress’ upper chamber after the 2016 elections. But it could also reflect a desire to avoid facing Rubio in a national GOP primary – one likely shared by every other Republican presidential hopeful, Bush included.
The NRSC philosophy is simple: Incumbents enjoy advantages, and while winning an open Senate seat in Florida during a presidential year is possible, it’s not easy, and it’s certainly not cheap. A GOP aide summarizes it simply, “Everyone is in a holding pattern until Rubio makes a decision.”
Wilson notes that Rubio’s biggest advantages heading into a presidential race include “a fresher brand and a lot of relationships from 2010, when he was the giant-killer against Charlie Crist.” Barring a spectacular series of gaffes, Rubio is likely to begin the campaign with years of accumulated good will from most of the conservative press. Syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer predicted that he would get the nomination; AEI’s James Pethokoukis said he would be “the guy offering fresh, relevant, conservative reforms”; and radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, recently announced as the moderator at an upcoming GOP presidential debate, has Rubio on his program frequently.
Even Mark Levin, the influential talk radio host who might be seen as hostile to Rubio’s stance on immigration, warmly welcomes the senator on his program, particularly when he’s criticizing the Obama administration on topics like its policy toward Cuba.
Back in January, Rubio told Hewitt, “We’re going to have multiple candidates that are of high quality, and Governor Bush would be one of them. I wouldn’t be running against Jeb Bush. If I ran, I would run because I believe I’m the right person for the right time in our country’s history.”
If Rubio hopes to be the right person for the right time in our country’s history, though, he’ll have to overcome Bush’s “high quality” – and his deep pockets — along the way.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for National Review.