Politics & Policy

For Marco Rubio, What Might Have Been — and Still Could Be

Rubio at CPAC 2016 in March (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
Florida’s junior senator, poised to win reelection eight months after being pummeled in his state's presidential primary, reflects on 2016

Port Orange, Fla. — Right around the time Donald Trump brought his crowd of nearly 5,000 to its feet in Jacksonville by pledging to bring “historic change” to the nation, Marco Rubio walked into a brewery 100 miles south and scanned the premises. Perhaps 200 people had gathered, most of them sipping iced teas — it was mid afternoon — and watching highlights from Game Seven of the World Series on a bank of televisions. They clapped a few minutes later when he took the stage, and nodded quietly as he stressed the necessity of keeping the Senate under GOP control. There was no soaring oratory, no made-for-TV moment. No one would blame the audience for forgetting that this man once graced the cover of TIME magazine as “The Republican Savior”; that he, not a 70-year-old reality-TV star, was supposed to be rallying thousands of people the week before Election Day; that in an alternative universe he would soon be elected president of the United States.

But they hadn’t forgotten. If anything, they seemed eager for Rubio to acknowledge this much. And as he did — “When I was running for another office earlier this year, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” — they laughed and groaned and shook their heads. Some of the attendees, wearing Trump apparel, said they were glad Rubio lost the presidential primary; others, still sporting Rubio’s “New American Century” shirts, rued the day that Trump took over the party. It has been jarring to watch Rubio campaign for reelection in the shadow of a presidential nominee who knocked him from the race with a shellacking in his home state. Gone were the bright lights and constant media coverage and Reaganesque speeches; in their place was a candidate humping across the state every day, speaking to crowds of 200 or 100 or sometimes 50, trying to salvage the Senate majority — and, perhaps, his political career.

Yet even as Rubio receded into this supporting role, there was no escaping the opportunity that had been lost — and the question of how different things might look for the GOP if he were atop the ticket. Despite Hillary Clinton’s vulnerabilities and historic unpopularity, she has consistently led Trump and is poised to win the presidency on Tuesday. For months, Republicans have moaned that they nominated the only candidate capable of losing this election, and that Ted Cruz or John Kasich or even Jeb Bush would be running circles around her. But the regret is especially palpable when it comes to Rubio: Not only did polls show him to be Clinton’s strongest opponent head-to-head, but, as the rhetorically moderate, 45-year-old, bilingual son of barely educated Cuban immigrants, he possessed the singular potential to remake the Republican party in his image. As Trump barrels toward what looks like certain defeat by alienating the very groups Rubio could have captivated, Republicans can only wonder what might have been.

“I had high hopes that Marco Rubio would become the Republican nominee, redefine the Republican brand, and make the Republican party far more open and attractive to non-whites — especially Hispanics — and young people . . . while at the same time appealing to blue-collar whites and others who feel left behind in this economy,” says Whit Ayres, Rubio’s pollster and the author of a book on how Republicans should adapt to demographic changes in the country. “I think he would have done that had he gotten the nomination. I also think he would be five or six points ahead of Hillary Clinton right now.”

With the Supreme Court hanging in the balance and Republicans facing the prospect of a twelve-year Democratic run at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, this sentiment has echoed throughout the GOP establishment in recent months. But in an interview with National Review, Rubio swears that he — unlike many of his fellow Republicans — doesn’t play the “what-if” game.

“I don’t think about that,” he tells me, seated at a high-top table inside an Irish pub in Palm Coast, Fla. Asked whether the fantasy of being five days away from the presidency ever crosses his mind, he shakes his head. “It really doesn’t. First of all, I learned a long time ago there’s nothing you can do about the past, so you really shouldn’t waste any energy on things you can’t change. You can only try to influence the future,” he says. “You learn from the past. But you can’t change it.”

The past few years have been a rollercoaster for Rubio, and he certainly sounds exhausted — like someone who might be either elated with a Tuesday victory or privately relieved with defeat. “If tomorrow I wasn’t in public service, I’d still have a wife and four kids who love me,” Rubio says. “This is what I do, and if people allow me to continue doing it, I’m going to do it for another six years in the Senate. And if they make a different decision, I’ll respect it and we’ll move on to other things. People talk about the cover of TIME magazine — I didn’t write that cover. I didn’t like the title of that cover. I don’t consider myself to be the savior of anything.”

While Rubio says he doesn’t “agonize” over his failed presidential bid, he’s clearly interested in rectifying its mistakes as he wages a difficult Senate race — and, quite possibly, prepares for another shot at the White House. It’s not unusual that there’s a hush-hush internal review of what went wrong in Rubio’s campaign. What is unusual is how quickly the recommendations are being road-tested, since Rubio’s political survival hinges on recovering from a devastating Florida loss in March and winning reelection to the Senate less than eight months later.

Sources close to Rubio commonly cite two fundamental weaknesses to explain the presidential defeat: a lack of grassroots organization and a light footprint in the early nominating states. Those lessons have been absorbed, his allies say, and quickly addressed during his Senate run.

Rubio’s first priority after he changed his mind and decided to seek reelection was to build out an extensive volunteer network. It had been missing in 2010, not that it mattered: He won an off-year election against mediocre opponents on the strength of enthusiasm, momentum, and narrative. Today, Rubio has 19 statewide offices, 25 field organizers, and more than 500 grassroots team leaders — numbers that campaign officials say dwarf his infrastructure of six years ago.

The second lesson was that Rubio had relied too heavily on reaching voters via mass media rather than spending extensive time on the ground. This fueled whispers among opposing campaigns that Rubio was lazy, a perception that wasn’t helped by his patchy Senate attendance record. The correction in his Senate campaign, especially down the stretch, has been noticeable: Rubio has been hitting four or five counties each day, zig-zagging across the state in a nondescript SUV. (It’s a “fourth gear” he says he didn’t know he had before 2016.)

In an interview with National Review, Rubio swears that he  — unlike many of his fellow Republicans — doesn’t play the ‘what-if’ game.

There’s one other lesson Rubio learned — and by the sound of it, a regret he carries — from the presidential race. “You know, I’m probably more involved in my campaign for Senate at the detail level. From our message to where our ads are going to be placed, I’m much more involved at a granular level of the day-to-day campaign than I was running for president,” Rubio says. “That was probably a mistake, not doing it earlier, and part of it was the nature of the race. . . .  That’s probably one of the things I’ve learned where, you know, you don’t want to micromanage, but I think I have something I can contribute to that aspect of it. And I think it’s made this a better campaign.”

Whether Rubio can apply these lessons to a future presidential race might depend on Tuesday’s outcome in Florida. If he prevails in one of the nation’s premier battlegrounds — where he was overwhelmingly rejected by his own party’s voters earlier this year — it will signal a resurrection of his prospects. And, if Trump loses, Rubio will suddenly find himself positioned near the top of the GOP’s 2020 roster alongside the likes of Cruz, Kasich, and Mike Pence. But if he loses Florida twice in 2016 — the first time to a neophyte real-estate mogul with no serious organization, the second time to a little-known Democratic congressman with no accomplishments to his name — there’s a real chance Rubio’s career in politics could be finished. This was apparent to his top advisers, all of whom urged Rubio not to run for Senate and expose himself to such risk.

“Those of us who offered advice or were asked for advice essentially said, ‘If you want to run for president again, don’t run for reelection,’” recalls one top aide, describing private conversations on the condition of anonymity.

At the time, his brain trust saw nothing but downside: If he won, well, he was the incumbent — he was supposed to win; if he lost, his presidential dreams might be dashed for good. “It’s great for Florida that you’re running again. And it’s great for the Senate Republicans,” another top aide recalls telling Rubio back in June. “I don’t think it’s great for you.”

That perception, however, has since shifted. Not only is Rubio a heavy favorite to win reelection — his Democratic opponent, Patrick Murphy, hasn’t led a single public poll the entire race — but Trump is heading toward a likely loss because of a historic deficit with Hispanic voters. If these trajectories hold, it’s possible that more Republican voters will finally heed the call to expand the party’s demographic coalition — and look to Rubio as the white knight party elites have long believed him to be.

“All’s well that ends well, and if he wins reelection in Florida he’ll look very strong, especially if Trump loses there,” says Al Cardenas, a former chairman of both the Florida GOP and the American Conservative Union. “It’s a big comeback story. To go from having lost badly in a presidential primary in your own home state to winning convincingly in your reelection to the U.S. Senate — it’s a pretty dramatic turnaround, especially without help from the top of the ticket.”

All things considered, that would be a happy ending to 2016 for Marco Rubio. But his team isn’t breathing easy. There’s still a chance Trump could take him down twice in one year — first by beating him badly in the presidential primary, and then by turning voters against down-ballot Republicans en masse. It wouldn’t just crush Rubio’s career; it would provide a symbolic setback to a party whose ambition to become more like Rubio has been thwarted by the rise of Trump.

*    *    *

Rubio campaigns in Largo, Fla., March 12, 2016. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Ironically, Rubio likely wouldn’t be poised for victory on November 8 if he hadn’t suffered that lopsided loss in Florida on March 15. Back then, the writing was on the wall: He’d gone winless in the first four states, limped into Super Tuesday on March 1, and emerged on life support after a lone victory in Minnesota. Internal polls forecasted a bloodbath in his own backyard.

The problems with Rubio’s campaign were fundamental and interconnected. Jeb Bush robbed him of a donor base, which forced him to launch a lean campaign, which compelled him to hop-scotch the country in search of cash, which deprived him of time campaigning in the early states, which led to damaging narratives that he possessed neither the infrastructure nor the relationships to compete in those states. Despite all of that — and in the face of Trump’s unprecedented free-media presence — Rubio remained in the thick of things. Low expectations led to the celebration of his third-place showing in Iowa, and he was poised to parlay that into a second-place finish in New Hampshire until he imploded during an unforgettable debate exchange with Chris Christie.

As things went downhill — despite a rebound performance in South Carolina — Rubio, a highly competitive former small-college football recruit, knew there would be no storied comeback. But he bottled up his disappointment, leaving it to subordinates to vent about how he’d faced more negative-ad spending than all of the other candidates combined. “What struck me was his calm, his steadiness. He was never too high, never too low, even in the face of $20 million from Right to Rise in New Hampshire,” says Jim Merrill, Rubio’s top operative in the Granite State. “In the middle of a maelstrom the likes of which we’ve never seen, getting pounded by Jeb and others, he was remarkably calm.”

Rubio’s campaign was robbed of two of its pillars — momentum and narrative — and some allies suggested he drop out to save face in Florida. He scoffed at the idea. “We had a lot of people working very hard for us, putting in a lot of time and energy, and I wasn’t just going to abandon them a week or two out given all the work they had done,” he tells me. “For us, it was a natural endpoint for the campaign. I wasn’t happy with the outcome, but I was at peace with it.”

Rubio was demolished. He lost 66 of Florida’s 67 counties and watched Trump win 46 percent of the vote (to his own 27 percent) and all 99 of the state’s delegates. Yet somehow, this result was preferable to the alternative: His advisers had warned that if he wanted to run for office again, quitting would look worse than losing. Moreover, the additional two weeks spent traveling his home state in a Rubio for President bus — pulling big crowds, drawing major media coverage — undoubtedly made a positive impression on the voters he’d need later in the year.

“If he had any thoughts of running for reelection, he couldn’t quit that race and then run,” Cardenas says. “He had to take his whupping and then mount his comeback.”

Rubio swears this wasn’t on his mind at the time, and by all accounts it’s true. He had long since decided that he would retire from the Senate and, if unsuccessful in the presidential contest, go into the private sector. He had hired Washington superlawyer Bob Barnett to field job opportunities, and according to people familiar with the process, was heading toward an extremely lucrative payday in the 7- or 8-figure range. Everything changed when Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and his team grew concerned about the little-known, poorly funded GOP candidates running to replace Rubio, and began pushing him to reconsider.

Rubio says he was conflicted up until the week of Florida’s filing deadline — ‘I was 48 hours away’ from retirement, he recalls.

Rubio, who was looking forward to making more money and living with his family in Florida full time, wasn’t interested. But as the lobbying effort persisted, Rubio’s potential rivals for the GOP nomination could tell he was softening on the idea. “You could see it coming,” says Todd Wilcox, a businessman and former CIA agent who’d been running for the seat. “There were suddenly signs there — like an increased level of activity from his constituent services — well before he actually decided to run. That told me, okay, he’s going to get back in the race.”

Rubio says he was conflicted up until the week of Florida’s filing deadline — ”I was 48 hours away” from retirement, he recalls — but ultimately couldn’t ignore the chance to keep the Senate under Republican control. “I knew I had an opportunity to make a difference, and if I didn’t I might regret it,” he says. “I might regret waking up to see Chuck Schumer as majority leader if we lost by one seat. I might wonder if it was my fault. So that was tough.”

The decision became easier when the rest of the GOP field cleared away. Rubio’s close friend, Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, had struggled to gain traction and eventually asked Rubio to get back in. Two congressmen, Ron DeSantis and David Jolly, had prepared separate filing packets — one for Senate, the other to run for reelection to the House. And Wilcox, who had already dumped hundreds of thousands of his own money into the campaign, says he commissioned an internal poll testing the incumbent senator against himself and a third remaining GOP candidate, businessman Carlos Beruff. “Rubio got 72 percent of the vote,” Wilcox says, laughing. ”I got six percent and Beruff got six percent.”

Wilcox quit the race and endorsed the incumbent two days after Rubio’s announcement that he would run. “Then he raised about $3 million in ten days,” Wilcox remembers. The sudden infusion of cash from Republicans who’d grown concerned about losing Florida’s seat ensured that Rubio would coast against Beruff in the GOP primary; it also coincided with a devastating story about Murphy, the star Democratic recruit, embellishing his résumé. In the span of two weeks, the race had been turned upside down — and so had Rubio’s political future.

“I was very surprised,” says John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council and a longtime Rubio ally who had lobbied him to re-enter the race. “We even had a ‘Draft Rubio’ page on Facebook, but it didn’t look good.”

“Nobody could have guessed he’d change his mind,” says Gary Marx, a Republican consultant who worked on the Rubio campaign. “I had a conversation with his chief of staff about the future and what he was going to do once the office closed. I mean, his people were looking for other opportunities. He was leaving. And then a couple of weeks later, he’s running for Senate again.”

Rubio’s about-face undoubtedly reeked of political opportunism to some, especially since he had been so adamant that he would be leaving the Senate. Yet there’s a complicating layer of nuance: Among the key reasons Rubio’s team warned him against seeking reelection was that the Senate is a dangerous place for a future presidential candidate, especially if there’s a Democrat in the White House forcing votes on everything from immigration to tax reform to infrastructure spending.

“He had a lot of nice job offers lined up. He could have traveled the country helping other Republicans getting elected and putting himself in position to run again in 2020,” one Rubio adviser says. “That’s a much better position than taking a bunch of tough votes in the Senate.”

As another Rubio adviser put it: “The candidates who won the most delegates in the Republican primary had the least amount of government experience. It would have been a good idea to get far away from the Senate.”

Rubio, convinced that he was needed to save the GOP majority, rejected their advice.

*    *    *

Rubio on the campaign trail in Iowa, October 2015 (Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

If he wins another term, and if Clinton wins the White House, Rubio’s every vote will indeed be under the microscope. The same will go for Cruz, who consistently outmaneuvered his Florida colleague in the 2016 primary campaign and who’s making little effort to hide his plans to run for president again in 2020.

What’s notable is that Rubio — who just finished going back on one unequivocal pledge — is once again sounding a tone of certainty about his future. He has repeatedly rejected the notion that he’ll run for president four years from now, most recently telling WFLA-Radio, “If I wanted to run for something else, I wouldn’t have run for Senate.”

On the other hand, he promised during an October debate to serve a full six-year term “God willing,” which struck some as an intentionally slippery turn of phrase. And friends say it’s noticeable in subtle ways that he’s still got the presidential bug. (When I ask him how waging a statewide campaign compares to running for president, he looks around and smiles. “Events like today remind me of Iowa — you know, a lot of hand-shaking and one-on-one with people.”) 

Rubio is less than categorical about his future in our interview. “I’ve told people — and I’m serious about it — I don’t have any intention, any desire, any plan to run for anything in 2020,” he says. “There are a lot of things I want to get done in the Senate. The Senate is an important place to get things done, and I look forward to the opportunity to make my mark.”

With Rubio’s obvious talents and outsized ambition, it’s difficult to imagine him skipping the next presidential cycle if there’s an open contest among Republicans to take on Clinton. One other intriguing scenario does exist, in which Rubio climbs the Senate leadership ladder and becomes the Republican leader. According to two Rubio confidantes, he has casually spitballed about this very idea. “I think that would be a perfectly plausible path for him to take,” one says.

Still, the near-universal expectation among friends and allies is that if he wins reelection on November 8 — and if Trump loses the White House — Rubio will jump at the chance to challenge Clinton in 2020. “People perceive him as a political animal who likes to run for office, but the truth is more that he’s a guy who loves ideas,” Marx says. “That said, my gut tells me he will run again, and it will be four years from now against Hillary Clinton.”

With Rubio’s obvious talents and outsized ambition, it’s difficult to imagine him skipping the next presidential cycle if there’s an open contest among Republicans.

It would owe to the political laws of supply and demand. If Trump loses because of a historically poor performance among Hispanics — the fastest-growing group in the American electorate, and one that could soon single-handedly turn red states blue — more Republicans are likely to cry out for someone with unique appeal to that constituency. There’s nobody better qualified than Rubio; not only does he share their heritage and speak their language, but he lives among immigrants in Miami and has advocated a realistic approach to fixing the nation’s immigration system.

Of course, it was his earlier approach — participating in the failed Gang of Eight effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform — that hurt him with the GOP base and made him a convenient foil for the likes of Trump and Cruz. Having learned from that experience, Rubio spent the past two years making the case that immigration reform can only happen incrementally in a three-step process: securing the border, modernizing the current system with internal enforcement mechanisms, and then finally dealing with undocumented immigrants in a “very reasonable” way.

He understands, however, that a President Clinton will have no interest in piecemeal legislation. If reelected, he says he’ll flat-out oppose any sweeping immigration effort. ”I agreed to work on a comprehensive approach [in 2013] because that’s the direction the Senate was going and I wanted to have influence over it. But there have now been five attempts to do it that way. It’s not going to happen,” Rubio says. “We’re wasting our time trying to do it that way.”

At the same time, he recognizes the existential threat facing his party as non-white voters continue to flock toward a Democratic party that is perceived to be more inclusive. It’s a difficult needle to thread — maintaining opposition to likely Democratic attempts to overhaul the immigration system while simultaneously attempting to soften the party’s image and expand its appeal.

There still exists, however, an almost messianic belief in Rubio’s ability to deliver the party from this predicament. “The night he suspended his campaign was the saddest night of my life,” says Maryanne Zinke, a 64-year-old former educator living in The Villages, a sprawling retirement community in Florida. She’s come to see the senator at an event there the Friday before Election Day, and is proudly wearing her “New American Century” shirt.

“The Republican party is broken, and it’s going to be a long road back. We need him,” Zinke says of Rubio. “He is our version of ‘hope and change.’”

Rubio doesn’t earn comparisons to Obama — who transformed the electorate by appealing to a combination of its ascendant voting blocs — because of his popularity with aging white women. He knows this. But he’s also careful to discuss the GOP’s dilemma as a collective problem, casting aside the role of savior that some allies believe did much more harm to him than good.

#related#”Our message is somehow not penetrating one of the fastest-growing groups in America, and that’s something we have to address,” Rubio says. “Political parties have to grow. We don’t have to change our principles to do that. But I think we have to make a concerted effort to reach not just Hispanic voters, but African-American voters. A political movement is either growing or it’s dying. You always want your message to appeal to more people. You always want to grow your movement. And I think you do that by consistently taking your message to people who don’t traditionally vote for you, and being willing to do it even if you’re not rewarded right away in the next election.”

Told that this is almost word-for-word what Republicans preached in 2012 after Mitt Romney’s loss, Rubio replied: ”Well, it’s always true. I mean, no political movement can survive and thrive if they aren’t growing. If you’re stagnant and stale, you’re shrinking and losing. So we have to do a better job of reaching people who aren’t voting for us.”

He pauses.

“And that takes time.”

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