“For Marco, being told he can’t do something is a challenge.”
Some of Marco Rubio’s early backers called themselves the Three Percent Club, because that’s where the ambitious young Republican was polling when he began running for U.S. Senate six years ago. He was taking on Florida’s popular Republican governor, Charlie Crist, who had all the name recognition, big endorsements and early money. The party establishment was pressuring Rubio to wait his turn, to skip the primary and seek a more age-appropriate office he could actually win.
But one influential Florida Republican kept privately encouraging the young man in a hurry to stick with it — former governor Jeb Bush.
And as Rubio wrote in his autobiography, An American Son, the hectoring from other party elites just made him mad. He believed his consistent Obama-bashing conservatism would play better in a Republican primary than Crist’s mushy Obama-hugging moderation, and he refused to be muscled out of the race. In the end, it was Crist who dropped out of the primary to avoid a drubbing — and Rubio who cruised from 3 percent to the Senate.
“For Marco, being told he can’t do something is a challenge,” says Tallahassee lobbyist Bill Helmich, who recalls staffing Rubio’s campaign in the barebones days when the “Three Percent Club” were viewed as crazy cultists by the Florida Republican establishment. “He’s an athlete. He goes at it as hard as he can.”
This evening in Miami, Rubio is expected to announce that he’s running for president, pursuing a destiny that national Republicans have speculated about ever since his come-from-way-behind Senate upset. And as Helmich says, “there are definitely parallels between Marco’s situation today and in 2010.” He is again polling in low single digits in the Republican field, again defying party mandarins who say he’s got a bright future but it’s not yet his time. The main difference is that many of those pay-your-dues establishment voices now believe it’s his former mentor Jeb Bush’s time.
There does not seem to be a pivotal meeting or moment that persuaded Rubio to try to beat the odds once more; as in 2010, he just never came up with a compelling reason why he shouldn’t.
For a Republican primary electorate that liked Mitt Romney’s policy stances but wished he were more charismatic, less plutocratic, more authentically conservative and less distasteful to the fast-growing Latino demographic, well, a Cuban-American Tea Party darling with working-class roots and rare magnetism makes a lot of sense. There’s been a sense in Washington that Rubio missed his moment ever since the bipartisan immigration reform he was pushing — his one real deviation from conservative Republican orthodoxy on foreign or domestic policy — ran aground on Capitol Hill. But as he has often told aides when the buzz has been in his favor, the flavor of the month can change in a hurry.
So Rubio has been assembling a new Three Percent Club (more like Eight Percent in the 2016 polls so far) of veteran Republican operatives. They like his compelling personal narrative — he’s the child of a bartender and a hotel maid who came to America seeking freedom and the opportunity to climb out of poverty — and his ability to connect that narrative to conservative themes of family and free enterprise. They see how he can mesmerize a room of grass-roots Republican activists or rich Republican donors. Yes, he’s only 43, and few Americans know much about him beyond his awkward swig of water during his 2013 State of the Union response. But facing a likely battle against 68-year-old Hillary Clinton, some Republicans think a fresh face will create a more favorable contrast than another Bush. Rubio’s friends say he tended to play devil’s advocate in chats about his political future, but in the end his thinking seems to have been: Why not now?
Rubio and his team do not like to talk about strategy, but in any case, the political calculus of giving up a Senate seat to seek the brass ring was not as painful as it sounds. Even if Rubio doesn’t win the nomination, he could well end up on the Republican ticket. Even if he ends up unemployed in 2017, he can run for governor in 2018 with a Republican-friendly mid-term electorate. He still has four children at home, but his wife Jeanette has always supported his ambitions. Most of all, though, Rubio concluded that he could win. He has never been afraid to run from behind — as a twenty-something knocking on doors to ask his neighbors to vote for him for West Miami commissioner, as an unknown challenging a well-known one-time TV reporter for state representative, as a back-bencher hoping to become speaker of the Florida House, and as a Senate hopeful supposedly embarking on a political suicide mission.
“Everyone always says it’s impossible, and then Marco does it,” says Rebecca Sosa, who was mayor of West Miami when Rubio first ran for office and now chairs the Miami-Dade county commission. “Some people call it a gift. I call it a blessing.”
Whatever you call it, Marco Antonio Rubio clearly has star quality. His Miami friends say they always thought he’d run for president someday, though few expected it to happen this quickly. His first job in politics was as a South Florida operative for Bob Dole’s ill-fated presidential campaign in 1996; his friend Jose Mallea, who worked for Rubio as a campaign volunteer, says he basically outshone the candidate. “We knew we were going to get creamed, but Marco inspired us to work so hard,” says Mallea, who went on to manage Rubio’s 2010 campaign. “We respected Dole; we loved Marco.”
Sosa recalls how the first time the baby-faced lawyer introduced himself at her front door and told her he wanted to run for the West Miami commission, he blew her away with an earnest soliloquy about living the American dream in a family of hardworking immigrants, about wanting to give back to the country that had given him so much. But Sosa also recalls that the first thing Rubio told her is that he knew he would have no chance of getting elected without her help — a shrewd bit of flattery from a cunning political animal. Rubio likes to bash the press for covering politics as a sport, but he teaches politics like a football coach to students at Florida International University, breaking down the Xs and Os of everything from how to keep in touch with your constituents to how to win a leadership race.
In fact, Rubio’s detractors have often suggested that he’s more concerned about the next job than getting stuff done in his current job. His autobiography is virtually devoid of substantive accomplishments beyond a local tree-planting project. In unguarded moments, Rubio’s allies describe him not so much as the right messenger with the right message for the right moment, but as an awesome messenger with an awesome message who could be plugged into any moment — and this one will do fine. Any Republican nominee is likely to argue for less government, less regulation, less social spending, lower taxes, and a more belligerent foreign policy. Rubio just happens to be exceptionally adept at making those arguments — in two languages.
He proved it in 2010, when the broad support for Crist among Florida power brokers forced Rubio to travel outside the state to seek money and attention. His victory made him a conservative rock star, prompting invitations to speak on behalf of GOP candidates across the nation, including Romney, who put him on his short list of running mates. His book tours — he followed up his memoir with a policy book called American Dreams — have also gotten him face time around the country.
“He was exposed to a whole different world out there, a lot of people who have helped him create a national fundraising network,” says his former state House colleague Gaston Cantens, who is now a sugar industry lobbyist. “It’s those people who have continued to encourage him to run for president.”
It’s hard for any politician to ignore that kind of encouragement, and the grass-roots response to Rubio has been reminiscent of the Democratic response to Obama during his pre-presidential book tour. By early 2013, some polls suggested he would be a favorite if he decided to seek the White House, and Beltway types began talking him up as a potential Republican version of Obama, a sharp-minded, silver-tongued first-term senator who doesn’t look like a traditional presidential candidate but could attract new voters to the cause. The Washington buzz quieted after immigration reform crashed and burned, but his team says the response to Rubio from party activists and big-ticket donors remained wildly enthusiastic.
“He didn’t hear ‘no, no, no,’” says former Florida House Republican leader Adam Hasner. “He was getting ‘yes, yes, yes.’”
Inevitably, his interest in the White House has created tensions with Governor Bush, his most important supporter during his Tallahassee career and arguably during his Senate campaign. Bush backers recall that Rubio repeatedly visited Bush in his Coral Gables office to ask his advice, and that Bush gave it too, as well as introductions to donors. “He told Marco not just to hang in there against Crist, but who to ask for help and how,” one adviser says. The Bush team also says Rubio would have ducked the race if Bush hadn’t persuaded him he could win.
“Jeb talked Marco out of the tree,” another Republican says.
Norman Braman, a billionaire Miami car dealer who is Rubio’s top financial backer — Jeannette actually works for his foundation — says that’s revisionist history.
“Marco did it on his own when almost no one else thought he could,” he says. “Marco’s election was about Marco. It wasn’t about Jeb.”
The two men still have a mutual respect; after addressing the NRA’s annual conference in Nashville, they sat together on their flight back to Miami and spent the entire three-hour trip talking and joking, aides say. But they’re competing for similar turf, and for the most part, the Florida Republican establishment has stuck with Bush; his Tallahassee fundraiser in a spacious Hotel Duval ballroom attracted about 300 guests, while Rubio’s event last Tuesday at the Governor’s Club had just 20 donors.
That said, Rubio has not really focused on Florida issues as a senator, letting his Democratic counterpart Bill Nelson take the lead and putting himself forward on national and global topics instead. As a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, he’s been an outspoken voice on the Senate floor and on Fox News for a harder line on international affairs, accusing Obama of mishandling Iran, ISIS, Russia, Libya, Venezuela, and of course Cuba, among other countries. He’s also established himself as a leading opponent of Obama’s budget policies, recording one of the few Senate votes against the bipartisan deal to avoid the fiscal cliff in 2013. His one conservative apostasy, immigration reform, is the one issue where many Republicans believe the party needs to moderate a bit to win in 2016; Rubio got a surprisingly warm reception in 2013 on the issue from influential conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
Rubio has been cagey about his plans, but by January friends and advisers could sense that he was running.
Gaston Cantens pulled him aside after one buffet dinner and put him on the spot: “I’ve got to know. Come on, what are you going to do?” He says his longtime pal, normally so expansive and direct, got evasive and fidgety. “I could tell from his body language that he was uncomfortable, but I could see in his eyes that he had the fire in the belly to run,” Cantens recalls. “He didn’t say it, but I could tell he wanted it.”
In late January, before a “Team Marco 2016” retreat for his top supporters at the swanky Delano Hotel on South Beach, Rubio told his top aides: Prepare for a presidential campaign. He is no longer the fresh-faced flavor of the month, which seems to be Scott Walker, or the Tea Party favorite, which could be Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, and Bush seems to be the establishment choice. But he could be acceptable to all those competing wings of the party.
He still hasn’t made it official that he’s running; that should happen today at Miami’s Freedom Tower, which once served as a kind of Ellis Island for Cuban refugees. “I have a unique opportunity to start to pay back a debt to this country I’ll never be able to repay,” Rubio said outside his fundraiser last week. “And if that opportunity is to serve in its highest office, I’ve always felt that I have the obligation to go out, look at it, and see how realistic it was.” The “always” was an interesting touch.
It was pointed out to Rubio that he’s looking thinner around the middle, a traditional sign of a politician preparing to run for higher office. “You think I’ve lost weight?” he asked. He then opened his jacket, looked down and smiled.
“I think it was Lent,” he said.