Let’s begin with a simple proposition — unless a candidate is seeking to fundamentally transform the GOP coalition (see, for example, Donald Trump), then winning a general election means uniting every GOP constituency under one banner, and happily so. Thus, we want a candidate whom establishment voters will want to support, along with populists, Tea Party conservatives, and every other wing of the GOP. It’s one thing to campaign against establishment politicians. It’s another thing entirely to shun establishment voters.
And this brings me to the persistent allegation that Marco Rubio is nothing but yet another “GOPe” stooge, a loser in the Dole/McCain/Romney mold and the tool of the Washington political class. As I’ve noted before — along with my colleague Jim Geraghty — in many ways Rubio is an odd fit for the “establishment” charge. After all, he’s the original Tea Party senator who toppled Charlie Crist, he’s been the target of tens of millions of dollars of negative ads from the ultimate establishment candidate, Jeb Bush, and his voting record — with the notable exception of the Gang of Eight — has been not just reliably conservative, but extraordinarily so. Indeed, he’s the architect of the single-most effective legislative assault against ObamaCare since its passage.
There is a difference between an establishment candidate and a candidate whom establishment voters can happily support. Rubio is the latter. That’s why talking heads speak of Rubio filling the “establishment lane” going forward. And that’s why the Bush Super PAC is spending tens of millions of the Republican donor class’s money attacking Rubio. If a Tea Party senator can fill the establishment lane, then millions of establishment voters are moving right, and the traditional political class truly is losing its influence.
Going forward, Rubio will most likely have the most success with establishment and conservative voters, while Cruz will battle with Rubio for conservative support and with Trump for populists. But even if Ted Cruz triumphs — the man the political class loves to hate — he’s still going to need their voters. Early in the primary, candidates try to rise from the pack by cornering the market on specific voter segments. As the primaries move on, the remaining contenders win by grabbing as many voters as they can from every segment. The time will come when even Ted Cruz will woo establishment voters, and that won’t make him “establishment.” It will just make him smart.