Politics & Policy

How Rubio Got to ‘Maybe’

(Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
He has until June 24 to change his mind and enter the Senate race.

It was May 12 when Marco Rubio made a seemingly offhand comment to reporters in the capitol. The conversation had turned to Rubio’s plan not to seek re-election, and a reporter offered that he still had time to change his mind. “June 24,” Rubio responded as he walked away, citing the deadline to file for entry in the race.

“That’s when I called Jolly and said, ‘Hey, David, he’s getting in,’” says Max Goodman, Representative David Jolly’s campaign manager. Jolly was a candidate for Rubio’s Senate seat until Friday, when he announced he would instead run for reelection to his House seat.  

Jolly’s camp is by no means a part of Rubio’s inner circle, but Goodman thought he saw the writing on the wall: There was the fact that Rubio had held fundraisers for lieutenant governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, his friend and favored replacement, but had never formally endorsed him. Lopez-Cantera, struggling to raise money and trailing in the polls, could have used the boost.

Then were also the stories that appeared in early May about Rubio’s enthusiastic return to the Senate after his presidential bid: “Rubio Learns to Love the Senate,” wrote Politico, while the Miami Herald penned, “The Political Rehabilitation of Marco Rubio.

Goodman was not alone in his suspicions that this was a coordinated series of developments designed to pave the way for Rubio to reverse course and seek re-election. Republicans, at least in retrospect, now see an effort to keep Rubio’s options open, if not by the senator’s allies then at least by others, including members of Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, who believe he provides them their best shot at keeping his seat. So while Rubio went from a definitive “no” to a strong “maybe,” seemingly in just four days, it was in reality a turn of events much longer in the making.

The effort to lure Rubio into the race began in earnest in late April and played out on multiple fronts. There were public entreaties by those in Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s orbit, who were quickly joined by several of Rubio’s Senate colleagues and by his political allies in Florida. But there were also private meetings with Mitch McConnell and the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

Related: Rubio Redux?

Rubio is mulling his own trajectory and his party’s, trying to decide how he can most effectively make a mark on the GOP’s future. He has repeatedly expressed frustration with his inability to make a difference from the Senate. Republican allies expect he will seek the presidency again in the near future, and it’s unclear whether four years toiling in the upper chamber during a potential Clinton administration would best position him to win the party’s nomination in 2020. Readying himself for another presidential bid from outside the political arena would present its own challenges. These are the matters that Rubio has undoubtedly been discussing with allies and with his family over the past several days.

According to a source, NRSC executive director Ward Baker first approached Rubio at the end of April. He also started calling senators and close confidants of Rubio, asking them to talk to him about running. Rubio was reluctant. But there was reason for interested parties to keep pressing him. Several polls conducted by the NRSC starting the first week of May determined that not one of the five candidates then running to replace Rubio had broken out of the pack. All were tied with or losing to the likely Democratic nominee, Patrick Murphy. And then there was Rubio: “He was not only in good shape,” says a Republican Senate operative who saw one of the polls, “but he blew Murphy out of the water.”

Around the same time, Rubio’s colleagues in the Senate started to sense a difference. In a couple of interviews, Rubio expressed regret that he did not have more time in the Senate. On the Senate floor, he was a passionate advocate for funding to combat Zika, a virus that could affect Florida more than other states.

According to the Republican Senate operative, in mid May, “[Nebraska senator] Ben Sasse casually mentioned to McConnell that he thought Rubio was having fun again and that he would miss the Senate.” Later that afternoon McConnell and Rubio spoke in the leader’s office, and he and asked Rubio to reconsider. It was not the first time McConnell had discussed the matter with him, but the result of the conversation was different this time, according to the operative: “Rubio left the door open a crack.” McConnell proceeded to enlist the entire Republican conference to convince Rubio to run.

It was shortly after this that the efforts to convince Rubio to run again went public. On May 26, CNN reported on McConnell’s efforts to rally his colleagues and coax Rubio into the race. Former McConnell chief of staff Josh Holmes turned his Twitter feed into a Draft Rubio effort and reached out to Republicans who might be able to help persuade the senator to change his mind.  

The day after the CNN story broke, Rubio told Jake Tapper he would “maybe” reconsider his decision if Lopez-Cantera weren’t in the race. It struck some Republicans as an odd answer. This was the guy who had refused to step aside for his former mentor, Jeb Bush, in the presidential race, and who subsequently spent several months beating Bush up on the campaign trail. How much of a deterrent could his friendship with Lopez-Cantera really be if he wanted to run?   

Some saw it as a signal from Rubio that if Lopez-Cantera got out, he would get in. And Lopez-Cantera had raised just over $1 million, a paltry sum that stoked doubts about his viability.

The repeated entreaties from all sides were hard to ignore. By late May, it wasn’t just his Senate colleagues. It was respected Florida politicos and allies, Mitt Romney — and even Donald Trump tweeted his encouragement: “Run Marco!

Still, as recently as last week, allies remained convinced that Rubio was not running. The circle of people with whom Rubio discussed his deliberations was a small one, say people close to him, with his family acting as the primary sounding board. 

The Orlando attack had a tremendous impact on Rubio, who has been particularly engaged on foreign policy and intelligence issues during his time in the Senate.

Then, on Sunday, June 12, after weeks in which the public pressure on Rubio to reconsider had continued to build, 49 people were gunned down and many others wounded at a gay nightclub in Orlando. The attack had a tremendous impact on Rubio, who has been particularly engaged on foreign policy and intelligence issues during his time in the Senate. “The event in Orlando really provided a moral crucible in which he, I think, then solidified the decision that this was something,” says John Stemberger, a conservative and an Evangelical leader in Florida.

The morning of the shooting, Stemberger says Rubio was the second person to call him. “He called me on my cell phone and he wanted to ask me to please plead with faith leaders in central Florida to pray for the victims and to really have an attitude of prayer and respect for those who were lost,” Stemberger says. Afterward, Stemberger says he “texted [Rubio] and said, ‘You are born to lead in moments like this, thank you.’”

“I think he was leaning against it up until that point [Orlando],” says former Florida House speaker Will Weatherford. “And some things just rock you to your core.”

It was that day, driving around Orlando in his pick-up truck, that he got the blessing of Lopez-Cantera, who was with him in his role as lieutenant governor, according to Politico.

By Monday, he was telling Hugh Hewitt he might reconsider. On Wednesday, he told reporters he was heading home to talk it over with his family. The next day, he reached out to allies to gauge their feelings on the possibility. One D.C. conservative tells National Review that Rubio called him on Thursday to ask for his thoughts, and that it was evident that Rubio was leaning toward running but had not made a final decision.

It’s clear why Rubio’s running would be a boon for Republicans hoping to hold his seat. But it’s less clear whether it would be good for Rubio, who would have to run with Trump at the top of the ticket and risk defeat not once, but twice in his home state in a single year — something that could damage his political prospects for life.

It’s clear why Rubio’s running would be a boon for Republicans hoping to hold his seat. But it’s less clear whether it would be good for Rubio.

He would have to weather a primary that would probably leave him bruised. Wealthy home-builder Carlos Beruff, a self-funding candidate and a close friend of Governor Rick Scott’s, has promised to stay in the Senate race regardless of Rubio’s decision, as has another self-funder, Todd Wilcox, though he has thus far spent less money than Beruff on the race.

Rubio has been particularly vocal in his disapproval of Trump, but like many other Republicans, he has said he’ll still vote for him. The rhetorical gymnastics required to justify that position have not cast the most flattering light. Beruff, meanwhile, has positioned himself as the Trump-like candidate in the race: an outsider businessman with a brash, controversial style. (In one speech, Beruff repeatedly called President Barack Obama an “animal.”)

On Friday, Beruff’s campaign gave a glimpse of how they plan to attack Rubio if he jumps in the race. When Rubio ran in 2010, he was the tea-party upstart taking on the Republican establishment. Now, they say, he is the establishment. The fact that McConnell has had such a visible hand in nudging Rubio into the race might deepen that impression. And this last-minute change of heart could strengthen the perception that Rubio is someone who flip-flops.

“In an era where people are really disgusted with people they elect who suddenly seem to kind of change their mind about a host of issues, I think Marco may get some short-term flak” if he runs for re-election, says Brett Doster, a Florida GOP consultant.

Assuming he clears the primary, he’ll then be forced into a general-election campaign against Murphy, whose ability to raise huge sums of money from the get-go caught some Republicans by surprise. And in the state that could well determine the winner of the presidential race, the Senate candidates will, to a large degree, be at the mercy of the advertising and ground games employed by those at the top of the ticket.

If Rubio loses — a real possibility in a toss-up state, particularly with Trump at the top of the ticket — it could end his political career. If he wins, he’ll spend the next four to six years voting on bills in a Trump or Clinton administration, and then being called to account for those votes whether he runs for president again or for a third term in the Senate. Many of his likely competitors in a future presidential election, including Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Ben Sasse, will be in the Senate with him, staring him down from the right.

Rubio allies say that if he does run, it will be because he wants to serve, not because he is weighing the costs and benefits to his political future. But the questions are one and the same: A failed Senate bid would severely limit his ability to serve in the future. A successful run could cast him as a hero. Whatever his choice in the coming days, his political future remains an open question.

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