One summer afternoon in 2013, Marco Rubio arrived at Mike Lee’s Senate office for a strategy session on derailing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Waiting inside were some of the upper chamber’s most conservative members, along with a group of influential activists. It promised to be an awkward pow-wow for the Florida senator, who had spent the 113th Congress authoring and promoting an immigration bill that turned some of his staunchest supporters — including some of those gathered in Lee’s office — into disgruntled opponents. Unperturbed, Rubio flashed a boyish grin and, according to multiple people present, greeted the group with a declaration: “The prodigal son is here.”
He knew he had sinned in their eyes, and that he needed the leaders of the increasingly powerful conservative movement that had championed his insurgent Senate bid to forgive him if he hoped to win their support for an eventual White House run. Yet one person in the room was already working overtime to make sure that wouldn’t happen. Ted Cruz, having copied Rubio’s anti-establishment blueprint to win his own Senate seat in 2012, had since usurped Rubio’s standing as the Tea Party’s favorite senator — in no small part by becoming the most vocal antagonist of the immigration-reform package that had blown up in the Floridian’s face earlier that summer. Both young senators harbored presidential ambitions, and if they ran against each other, Cruz wanted a clear contrast drawn between his brand of uncompromising ideological warfare and Rubio’s more pragmatic conservatism.
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More than two years later, in the midst of a chaotic primary fight, and in spite of stubborn threats from outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson, Rubio and Cruz find themselves on rising trajectories that could allow them to consolidate the two traditional wings of the GOP and square off head-to-head for the nomination: Rubio by winning the support of establishment donors like Paul Singer and Frank VanderSloot and portraying himself as the most electable candidate; Cruz by collecting endorsements from prominent conservatives such as Brent Bozell and Ginni Thomas and boasting of his unrivaled ideological purity. As both candidates gain momentum and add to their lists of influential backers — Rubio among establishment figures, Cruz among movement conservatives — a head-on collision appears more likely by the day.
Cruz may soon discover, though, that a binary battle with Rubio is a double-edged sword.
Conservative leaders have acknowledged a new reality: Rubio’s emergence as the establishment favorite lessens the urgency to throw their weight behind Cruz.
The good news for the Texas senator is that what was once dismissed as a pipe dream — monopolizing the support of the conservative movement’s most prominent leaders in the hopes of consolidating their grassroots followers behind his candidacy — is now more feasible than ever before. The movement’s leaders recognized early that they, too, could benefit from supporting Cruz, and he’s become the clear favorite of a group of conservative luminaries — led by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council (FRC) — who for two years have plotted to unite early behind a single conservative candidate in 2016, convinced that there’s no other way for them to defeat whoever emerges as the establishment’s standard-bearer.
The bad news? That establishment bogeyman was always expected to be Jeb Bush, a relative moderate in the mold of John McCain and Mitt Romney. He would have been the ideal foil for Cruz and his conservative backers. Instead, it’s Rubio — protégé of Jim DeMint, feller of Charlie Crist — who is gaining a foothold as the establishment’s top contender.
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It’s a development neither Cruz nor his allies saw coming, and according to recent interviews with a dozen prominent conservative activists, it has prompted some of those involved to step back and reevaluate their approach to the upcoming primary season. In recent meetings from California to Washington, conservative leaders have acknowledged a new reality: Rubio’s emergence as the establishment favorite lessens the urgency to throw their weight behind Cruz. In fact, they say, it could entirely neutralize the campaign by Cruz supporters to coordinate the sweeping endorsement their activist allies have long planned.
“You know how Obama changed the electorate? Rubio kind of changes the primary electorate,” says Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state and a senior fellow at the FRC, who serves on the boards of directors at the National Rifle Association and the Club for Growth.
“If it’s a Rubio-Cruz battle, there are folks in different parts of the conservative coalition that Rubio energizes,” Blackwell adds. “And that could in fact block efforts to coalesce behind Cruz.”
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Timing is everything in primary politics, and social conservatives have begun to bicker about when an endorsement should come — after months of spirited dialogue over whether one should come at all. And at the center of all this is Perkins, a former police officer and Louisiana lawmaker who has become arguably the nation’s most politically influential evangelical.
Cruz has been relentless in his courtship of Perkins, who says he has spent more time with the Texas senator over the past year than with any other candidate. The two have shared frequent dinners in Washington, and attended public and private events together. Just last month, Perkins headlined a religious-liberty rally for Cruz in South Carolina. Perkins says he would do the same for other candidates, but Cruz’s team feels certain they’ll win his support, as well as that of Bob Vander Plaats, the evangelical kingmaker in Iowa.
The stars have aligned for Cruz in a way that even he couldn’t have predicted, with three of his direct competitors for the support of social conservatives exiting the race.
What’s unknown is whether those endorsements will trigger, or be part of, the larger coalescence that Perkins, Vander Plaats, and their allies have long plotted. Some of the uncertainty stems from the primary calendar itself: While Vander Plaats’s support is needed (and almost certain to come) before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, it’s increasingly unclear whether national leaders will weigh in before then. Perkins himself says any mass endorsement “needs to happen before Iowa,” but some of his closest allies have long viewed such a drastic move as necessary only if an establishment steamroller threatens to flatten them. Since there is no such threat, some now say they should wait to see which three or four candidates emerge from Iowa and New Hampshire and act accordingly.
It’s an intensified version of the conservative debate that’s been raging all year. Loyalties were divided among candidates from the start, and some activists have felt all along that it would be hypocritical for D.C.-based conservative leaders to dictate to their national grassroots followers. In fact, several people who were once involved in the discussions say they left Perkins’s group earlier this year for precisely that reason.
RELATED: When Cruz Makes His Move, Watch Out
Despite those setbacks, the stars have aligned for Cruz in a way that even he couldn’t have predicted, with three of his direct competitors for the support of social conservatives — Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, former Texas governor Rick Perry, and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal — exiting the race. “It’s a little bit easier with the field narrowing,” Perkins says. “Rick is out; he’s a good friend. Bobby has a lot to offer and is a close friend, and he was an option for me if he could have gotten a little more traction. With him stepping out, it makes it easier.”
#share#Just as the conservative lane of the race has begun to clear, however, the establishment lane has become more crowded, with a familiar face surging to the front and complicating the calculations of those who had schemed to defeat another moderate.
Rubio has his own roots in the conservative movement, having run as a challenger to Crist in 2010. Despite his support for what many of Rubio’s one-time backers decried as “amnesty,” he is fluent in the language of the grassroots, and solid on the three traditional legs of the conservative “stool”: social, fiscal, and national-security issues.
Jenny Beth Martin, who chairs the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, says Rubio’s actions on immigration hurt his standing among conservatives and will factor heavily into the group’s forthcoming deliberations over which candidate to endorse. Still, she says a Cruz-Rubio contest would represent a “win-win” for her members because both candidates “ran and got elected originally based on tea-party values, and they are running again based on tea-party values.”
That Rubio and Cruz are currently the two leading GOP candidates with elected experience is, says Mike Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action for America, a “tremendous testament to what conservatives have been able to achieve.”
This sentiment echoed in weeks of conversations with conservative leaders, none of whom have endorsed and all of whom have been involved in discussions about uniting their movement behind a single candidate.
‘If it comes down to a Cruz-Rubio race, it’s a huge win for the conservative movement.’
– Wesley Goodman
“If Marco Rubio is the establishment candidate, look at how far we’ve come. This is someone who ran as an outsider, who ran as a conservative, someone who was a Jim DeMint–endorsed, Club for Growth–endorsed candidate who forced a sitting governor to switch parties,” says Wesley Goodman, the former executive director of the Conservative Action Project, an umbrella organization that brings together leaders from dozens of activist groups such as the American Conservative Union and the Susan B. Anthony List.
Goodman, now a candidate for state representative in Ohio, adds: “If it comes down to a Cruz-Rubio race, it’s a huge win for the conservative movement. . . . I think most people will be with Cruz, but secretly jumping up and down with excitement” about having Rubio as the alternative.
That scenario poses a grave threat both to Cruz and to the conservative activists scheming alongside him, whose common theory of the primary is predicated entirely upon facing an unpalatable opponent. Both publicly and privately, Cruz has predicted that establishment Republicans would yet again rally behind a candidate with limited appeal among the grassroots. The only way to prevent another “mushy moderate” from becoming the party’s nominee, he told a closed-door gathering of the Council for National Policy (CNP) in May, would be to unite around him.
“D.C. knows if we’re divided, then the moderate Washington candidate with all the money comes right through and wins the nomination with 26 percent of the vote,” he told members of the secretive, Perkins-helmed group, which brings together activist leaders from across the country. “The men and women in this room, if you decide, have it in your capacity to unify the conservative movement. The numbers are such that if conservatives are united, it’s game over.”
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Cruz’s speech was momentous: a pitch to become conservatives’ consensus candidate, delivered to the very people who have led discussions about uniting the movement. At the same event, a smaller group led by Perkins, Vander Plaats, Senate Conservatives Fund president Ken Cuccinelli, and longtime social-conservative leader Gary Bauer convened an invite-only meeting to map out their plans for a mass endorsement. Cruz, after his speech, became the focal point of those plans.
But Rubio had also made a strong impression on the CNP crowd, delivering what attendees described as a presentation so powerful it left some of those who’d soured on him during the immigration debate swooning. It was, they said, a reminder of why they’d fallen in love with Rubio in the first place.
Warm feelings toward Rubio have swelled in recent months, conservatives say, even as he aligns himself more with the party’s elite than with its base.
Those warm feelings toward Rubio have swelled in recent months, conservatives say, even as he aligns himself more with the party’s elite than with its base — and even as he shows no sign of making a substantive break with the immigration policies that got him in hot water in 2013.
“A significant number of our people, despite the immigration issue, are considering Rubio,” Bauer says. “He’s got obvious political abilities, and he’s been willing to wade into some of these social issues in a significant way.”
But much of that goodwill will erode, Perkins predicts, now that Rubio is positioning himself as an establishment-friendly candidate and enlisting the financial support of those who don’t share the movement’s values.
“When you’ve got guys like Singer supporting him that have views that are antithetical to most social conservatives, that makes it harder for Rubio,” Perkins says of Paul Singer, the billionaire hedge-fund manager who financed initiatives supporting same-sex marriage in New York. “We realize we have to build coalitions to win, but in a coalition you don’t blow up your partners. . . . You can’t have somebody like Singer who is adamantly for the redefinition of marriage teaming with people who adamantly want to defend marriage.”
Perhaps sensing these concerns and the damage they could do, Rubio recently hired Eric Teetsel, a prominent young evangelical who is an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, to spearhead his outreach to religious conservatives. Perkins, among other social-conservative leaders, says he had already heard from Teetsel and would be meeting with him soon.
Of course, Rubio’s biggest obstacle with conservatives isn’t the definition of marriage but the path to citizenship he pushed as part of the 2013 immigration bill. It remains his chief political vulnerability and the subject on which Cruz is likely to hammer him hardest.
“Rubio is terrible on immigration, which is a top issue for our people. It’s been his big stumbling block since the beginning,” says Ed Martin, president of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. “If someone has the money and the brain to do it, they can run really damaging ads. And I think Cruz’s team could do it.”
#related#But barring a scorched-earth campaign that eradicates Rubio’s support among conservatives, the immigration issue may not matter. If the race becomes a two-way fight between Rubio and Cruz — a big if, but still the likeliest scenario in the eyes of Republicans who think Trump and Carson will eventually collapse — the outcome will be determined by which candidate can siphon more support from his rival’s base and build a broader alliance of voters.
Cruz has many political skills and strengths; crossover appeal to the establishment is not one of them. Rubio, meanwhile, continues, as Perkins puts it, to “straddle the fence,” which won’t land him any mass endorsement but could be key to constructing a winning coalition.
“Cruz’s challenge is to not totally alienate the establishment, whereas Rubio already has significant appeal in the conservative world,” Blackwell says. “It’s not like he has to win them all over; he just has to loosen Cruz’s grip a bit. And he’s already won some of them over.”
Eliana Johnson contributed to the reporting of this piece.
— Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review.