Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated since its original posting.
Marco Rubio has gotten some glowing notices in the press lately. But if the last few years are any indication, he won’t be receiving any from one of the most prominent Republican pundits in the mainstream media.
Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman and eponymous host of the influential MSNBC program Morning Joe, has been so hostile in public and private toward the Florida senator that it’s now turning heads in Republican circles.
On television and social media, Scarborough has dismissed Rubio as a wannabe student-council president and lambasted him for lying to the American people. Scarborough’s distaste is returned in kind: Rubio doesn’t think much of him, either.
The two were ships passing one another in the night in Florida. Rubio was elected to the state’s House of Representatives in 2000, and Scarborough resigned his congressional seat one year later. Both are young men of tremendous talent and promise who came out of the same political jungle and who have landed in very different places — one a presidential candidate, the other a highly successful media personality.
According to multiple sources in Florida, the friction between the two dates back to Rubio’s Senate race in 2010 against former Florida governor Charlie Crist, when Scarborough argued that Rubio was too young, too unseasoned, and — perhaps most seriously — too compromised by ethical issues to win the Senate seat. In picking up this line of criticism, Scarborough has once again become one of the senator’s chief antagonists, this time in his quest for the White House.
Scarborough has once again become one of the senator’s chief antagonists.
The first flare-up was on April 21, 2010. The night before, on April 20, the Miami Herald reported on a criminal investigation into the use of credit cards issued by the Florida GOP. The report cited an anonymous source alleging that the Internal Revenue Service was combing through Rubio’s tax records, along with those of two other Florida Republicans — which the Rubio campaign furiously denied, and which has never been confirmed.
The following morning, Scarborough led his show with the story, alleging that it might be merely the first of several forthcoming disclosures that could threaten Rubio’s campaign.
“There are several other investigations going on, we’re not going to get into them right now,” he said, “but the top journalists in the state of Florida and top journalists in New York and Washington are pursuing some other stories.”
“If that other shoe drops,” he said, “there’s some question as to the viability of his campaign.”
He went on. “There are some times we know of things that we can’t completely spell out on TV. . . . Does Rubio just keep going, keep his head down, and hope that all of these investigations turn out well? We shall see.”
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The impression at Rubio’s campaign headquarters, according to a former campaign staffer, was that “this story had been fed to Scarborough, he knew to be on the lookout for it.”
The “other shoe” to which Scarborough referred never did drop, although the Florida GOP took a hit when Rubio’s successor as House speaker, Ray Sansom — a friend of Scarborough’s whose conduct Scarborough denounced at the time — was indicted for falsifying the state budget to secure a $6 million aircraft hangar for a major donor.
Since Scarborough’s intimations in 2010, Rubio has appeared on Morning Joe just once, in 2011, alongside Senator Chris Coons (D., Del.), with whom he was cosponsoring a jobs bill. A Rubio spokesman declined to comment on the senator’s media strategy, but sources familiar with the campaign’s internal deliberations say Rubio has declined numerous invitations to appear on the show owing to the remarks Scarborough made during his Senate campaign.
Scarborough correctly views himself as an equal-opportunity critic of the Left and the Right, and he has issued brutal assessments of several other Republican candidates: Ted Cruz is “a total train wreck”; Jeb Bush is “a dork”; Ben Carson would be “in over his head” as president.
#share#But the vehemence directed at Rubio has attracted attention, and Florida Republicans have a variety of theories about it.“Joe is not a Donald Trump–style Republican, but he has been much easier on Trump than Rubio, which people are beginning to find puzzling,” says Florida-based Republican strategist Rick Wilson. “People are starting to pick up on this.”
Some say that Scarborough had a friendly relationship with former Florida governor Charlie Crist, whom Rubio would go on to defeat in the 2010 race.
“He had a good relationship with Charlie Crist when he was governor,” says Collier Merrill, a Scarborough friend and former campaign aide, Florida restaurateur, and Escambia County chairman for Jeb Bush.
Others say that Scarborough is turned off by Rubio’s slickness. “Everybody who knows Rubio doesn’t support Rubio,” says John Morgan, a Florida trial lawyer for whose firm Crist works, because “Rubio will tell you anything you want to hear.” And Scarborough, he says, is wondering, “‘How has he been able to pull off this con?’ He’s frustrated that people are believing it.”
Scarborough continues to harbor political ambitions, of which he has made no secret.
Scarborough continues to harbor political ambitions, of which he has made no secret. When he said he was considering a presidential bid, his ruminations were highly publicized. His rudimentary plans included a visit to New Hampshire along with a bevy of aides; according to one source, the footage was aired extensively on Morning Joe despite internal pushback. He also organized a dinner at his home for a group of Politico reporters to discuss his place in the Republican field. Scarborough’s name has also been floated as a potential vice-presidential nominee for former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who toyed with presidential bids in both 2012 and 2016.
“Ten years ago, Joe was viewed as a strong and likely candidate for the U.S. Senate,” says Florida Republican state senator Don Gaetz, a longtime friend of both Rubio and Scarborough. “Had he not resigned, had he stayed and pointed himself to a Senate run, it’s easy for me and everyone who knows Joe to imagine him being in the U.S. Senate today, and being in the position Marco Rubio is today.”
#share#In a comment to National Review, Scarborough dismisses all these theories as nonsense, and denies that he has been notably tough on Rubio. “While I don’t know Marco personally, I have followed his political career long enough to know that he is a talented politician with a bright future. All the 2010 articles citing his financial misdeeds ended up leading nowhere. That’s why I told an interviewer in June that Marco or Jeb had the best chance of getting 270 electoral votes against Hillary Clinton. I also said last month that Marco or Jeb had the best shot of beating Donald Trump,” Scarborough says.
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He adds, “I’ve been critical of Marco’s presidential campaign, but no more critical than I was of countless other candidates when they flip-flopped on issues like immigration or made misleading statements. The transcripts clearly show I’ve actually been tougher on many other presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle. The only difference between Marco’s campaign and all the others we’ve covered through the years is how thin-skinned his operation seems to be. Their continued suggestions to reporters that my analysis is based on a personal animus suggests that I know Marco enough to dislike him. I don’t. My critiques have mainly centered on the fact he has no more experience than Barack Obama did when his own disastrous presidency began.”
‘When I see Marco speaking, I’m seeing a guy that’s running for student government, and it’s not just because of his age.’
One way or the other, Scarborough has persisted in taking the bark off of Rubio. In an October 16 interview with the conservative radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, who heaped praise on Rubio as “the most dynamic speaker the Republican party has seen . . . since Lincoln,” Scarborough responded, “When I see Marco speaking, I’m seeing a guy that’s running for student government, and it’s not just because of his age.”
His tone sharpened the morning after the Republican debate in Boulder, Colo. Rubio had, the night before, dismissed a question about his financial record as “a litany of discredited attacks by Democrats.”
“Marco just flat-out lied to the American people there,” Scarborough said. As Rubio has once again come under scrutiny for misusing a credit card issued to him by the Florida Republican party during his time as a junior state legislator, Scarborough has been on the case.
Earlier this week, he compared Rubio to former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, who was indicted on felony charges last year.
“Bob McDonnell went to jail for small sums,” Scarborough said on Wednesday. “When you’re talking about the misuse of campaign finances, the misuse of state-party finances, small sums actually become crimes. We’re not saying that about Marco, I’m saying though, his successor got sent to jail.”
#related#Scarborough has been vocal with his criticisms in private as well as in public. He aired his sentiments at a private New York City gathering for top Republican donors last month, to the surprise of many attendees. “He trashed Rubio,” according to one attendee who characterized his remarks this way: “‘Looks like he’s twelve,’ ‘not his turn,’ ‘why doesn’t he stay in the Senate and learn something and run in 2032.”
As the attendee puts it, “His hostility to Rubio was unbridled and unfiltered.”
Scarborough is indubitably an acute political observer, and it may be that, ultimately, his criticisms of Rubio prove out. Regardless, for political insiders, his take on his fellow Floridian remains one of the more intriguing media subplots of the 2016 race.
— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.