Politics & Policy

Rubio Redux?

(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
He insists he won't run for reelection, but Republicans desperate to keep the Senate still hope he'll change his mind.

When Marco Rubio spoke at an event for fellow Senator Cory Gardner this week, Gardner introduced him “as a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Florida.”

Rubio’s reaction? “He didn’t say yes or no,” the ever-smiling Gardner says with a laugh.

Whether Rubio will change his mind and seek reelection to the Senate is the question of the week. Worried about keeping their Senate majority, a number of Rubio’s colleagues are leaning on him to run. They’ve been joined by a handful of his friends in the House, and a growing chorus of Florida elected officials. Rubio’s own stance, once definitive, appears increasingly open to interpretation. And the uncertainty has caused a paralysis to settle over the Florida Republican Senate primary, as donors and candidates wait for a definitive signal from the incumbent.

Rubio’s office says that signal has already come. “Senator Rubio will not be running for reelection — he’ll be a private citizen come January 2017,” e-mails press secretary Olivia Perez-Cubas.

But if that’s a hard no, a lot of people missed the memo. Many of Rubio’s Senate colleagues, donors, and allies in Florida and D.C. continue to beat the drum, forecasting a nearly certain loss if he isn’t convinced to change his mind.  

“I honestly don’t know what he’s going to do,” representative Tom Rooney, a staunch Rubio ally and Florida campaign co-chairman for Rubio’s presidential bid says Wednesday. “I think if Rubio runs, he wins, and I’ve told him that.”

Former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, a former colleague of Rubio’s from the state house, says his “instinct says [Rubio] doesn’t do it,” but nonetheless estimates there’s a “30 percent shot” that he does.  

The hope is that the public pressure will give Rubio cover to change his mind. There’s a pervasive sense of pessimism among Republicans about what will happen if he doesn’t.

The uncertainty has left the five Republicans already running for the seat in a state of suspended animation. Representative David Jolly has said publicly that if Rubio decided to run, “not only would I withdraw and support him, I would hope everyone else in the race would do the same thing.” Businessman Carlos Beruff, on the other hand, “is going to be in the race no matter what,” says his consultant Curt Anderson. Businessman Todd Wilcox is likewise defiant. “As a conservative I have no intention of leaving this race just because another career politician gets in,” he says. Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera has put out an invitation for a fundraiser with Rubio as the headliner, though many expect Lopez-Cantera would step aside for the senator, a close friend and long-time ally. Representative Ron DeSantis declined to discuss his plans.  

The waiting game has frozen fundraising for the moment, as donors hesitate to spend money before they’re certain of Rubio’s plans. They’re asking, “Can I wait until [Rubio] decides?” says David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth, which has endorsed DeSantis but backed Rubio in his 2010 Senate bid. The Club’s plan, says McIntosh, is “we wait and see what he decides.”

“My hope,” McIntosh says, “is he decides quickly.”

The push for Rubio to change his mind and run for reelection emanates from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s orbit, and it’s hard to say how much of it is wishful thinking at this point. It reportedly intensified after a Senate GOP lunch when he polled his Republican colleagues on whether they’d like to see Rubio run again; seeing favorable results, McConnell urged them to help convince him to do so.

It quickly became a public endeavor. “McConnell signaled that there was going to be a public push . . . and it’s kind of signaled to folks who love Rubio and would love to see him in the Senate and who might not have known if McConnell hadn’t said it to maybe talk Rubio into a second term,” says Rob Collins, the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.  

Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff, has turned his Twitter feed into a near-daily Draft Rubio effort, saying the seat is in danger if the effort doesn’t succeed. “We can’t afford to be giving away incumbent-held seats,” says Holmes.

#share#The hope is that the public pressure will give Rubio cover to change his mind. There’s a pervasive sense of pessimism among Republicans about what will happen if he doesn’t. The five current Republican candidates are largely unknown in the state, and with an August 30 primary, they will have to spend the bulk of the next three months boosting their name recognition in the more Republican areas of the state, leaving a lot of heavy lifting to do in the final two months of the election. None have raised more than $4 million so far, a paltry sum in a gigantic state where consultants say the general election can be a $1 million-a-day affair. Add to that a presidential nominee with a penchant for offending large swathes of the electorate, and it could be a rough year in one of the toughest swing states.

“As of right now I think if the race was held [likely Democratic nominee] Patrick Murphy would win pretty easily,” says Rooney.

And that would be a devastating blow to Republicans already facing down a difficult cycle. They are defending at least ten competitive seats, while Democrats are defending just two. A net loss of just five Republican seats would flip control of the chamber to the Democrats. The NRSC, faced with such an unforgiving map, is unlikely to have the resources to prop up a struggling campaign to the degree that would be required in a state the size of Florida.

Rubio, of course, would solve that problem — he’s got a fundraising apparatus, name recognition, statewide popularity, and the advantages of incumbency. But it’s hard to say whether seeking reelection would be a positive for Rubio, if he is angling for a 2020 presidential bid, as most D.C. and Florida Republicans expect.  

On the one hand, if he runs and wins, he could be hailed as a hero of the cycle. What’s more, a win would put to bed one of the criticisms that dogged him in the presidential race: that he was an inexperienced, first-term senator. “A big criticism of Marco in the presidential cycle was that he was too green,” says Rooney. “Well, you know, he can get rid of that argument against him if he’s a two-time senator, if he decided to run again.”

But it’s also a very high-risk proposition. Deciding to run after two years of promising not to could feed the perception that he has a penchant for flip-flopping, which dogged him during the presidential race and has lately been furthered by his waffling treatment of Donald Trump. Florida is a purple state, and in a presidential year, with Trump creating new chaos for Republicans every other day, there’s no guarantee Rubio would win reelection; two losses in a single year could be devastating for his future political career. And if he did win there would be other perils: He’d spend the 2020 cycle being forced to account for every single vote he made under a Trump or Hillary Clinton administration.

For all the certainty projected by his office, Rubio’s own stated feelings on a run sound less definitive. “Nothing’s changed,” he told CNN earlier this week, wording that some Republicans say they interpreted as suggesting that something could change in the two weeks before the filing deadline. Asked whether he might decide to run after all in an interview with local television station WFTV, Rubio said: “I don’t anticipate it. Like I said, you never say never to anything.”

These are not clips cherry picked to suggest indecision: These are the clips Perez-Cubas passed along with the statement saying he wouldn’t run.

So it remains unclear whether Rubio has really left the door open or people are hearing what they want to hear. There’s a lot of speculative interpretation of smoke signals: Why would McConnell put himself out there on this if he didn’t strongly believe there was a chance? But why would Rubio put his name on a fundraiser if he were considering running? Would national Republicans risk damaging the current field of candidates by calling them weak if they thought they’d have to tell donors to give to one of those weak candidates eventually? Why would two of Rubio’s top aides launch their new consulting firm this week if their guy were about to jump into a Senate race?

Rubio confidantes are adamant that he won’t run. But one Rubio advisor acknowledges, “I think there are going to be some people that hold that hope until the deadline passes.”

Jeff Flake, one of Rubio’s Senate colleagues who says he’s encouraged Rubio to run, sums up the prevailing sentiment. Asked if Rubio has completely shut the door on a run, Flake says simply: “I hope not.”

— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.

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