Marco Rubio has been effectively running for president for the past six years. It may end up costing him a much-needed victory in his own home state – and with it, any hope of the Republican nomination.
For all of the Florida senator’s attention to the national political scene – getting out front on an immigration issue party leaders identified as a priority, backing away when conservative activists rejected it, campaigning for other Republican candidates, orchestrating his own immigration apology tour along the way – Rubio has left his most important voters – the ones who have actually pulled a lever for him – unattended. And now, as Rubio needs his home state more than ever, he’s finding they’ve moved on, too. Two recent polls in advance of the Florida primary next Tuesday show Rubio getting doubled up by New York businessman and former reality TV show host Donald Trump.
“We’ve had a hard time getting him to visit the grassroots,” Michael Barnett, the Palm Beach County Republican chairman, said about Rubio. “We’ve invited him to be our Lincoln Day speaker every year, and he always turned us down for one reason or another. He has his priorities.”
His absence in his own state has been noticed. While other senators, including Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley and New York Democrat Charles Schumer, make a point to visit every county in their state each year, no goal exists for Rubio. A political calendar maintained by News Service of Florida shows Rubio has held just a handful of public events each year he’s been in office, which include his book tour stops and campaign rallies for other candidates.
“I am the mayor of the third-largest city in this state. I have never met Marco Rubio,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, said on MSNBC on Monday. “He has never taken the time, either in Washington, D.C., or in Tampa.”
At Rubio’s rally in Sarasota on Tuesday, even supporters wished Rubio had better answers for his absences.
“He definitely should have been here more, been present and really addressed Floridians,” said Denise Kassal, a 54-year-old a hospice nurse. “He’s trying to unify the country but he should have unified his state first. He should have said: ‘I’m leaving but I’m leaving for you and I'll be back.’ That would have helped.”
Rubio’s inattention to Florida has left him little help from the state’s other top Republican officeholders and donors who initially backed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Many of these influential Republicans, if you buy the theory that life imitates art, see a certain justice in watching this Shakespearian tragedy come to a conclusion with Rubio’s bloodied candidacy crawling to the finish line on election night Tuesday in his own backyard.
“I was put off by the fact that Marco didn’t endorse Jeb,” said Al Hoffman, a Florida real estate developer and former U.S. ambassador to Portugal. “I held fundraisers for his re-election campaign, and that’s when he told me he’d support Jeb when the time came. But that’s OK. He’s going to do what he wants to do.”
When Bush dropped out, there was hardly a rush to Rubio among Floridians. Many of his donors remain on the sideline, as does Bush, who is unlikely to endorse before Tuesday and took meetings Thursday with Rubio rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Rubio, who met with Bush on Wednesday, also won’t get endorsements from the top two Republican offices holders in the state, both of whom were elected to their first statewide office on the same ballot as Rubio.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, the former chief executive of HCA hospital chain who fought the Republican establishment to win office, identifies more with the brash billionaire. Attorney General Pam Bondi is also, somewhat astonishingly, said to have a closer relationship with Trump than Rubio.
The problem is deeper than simply failing to maintain relationships. Rubio may have lost his feel for the pulse of the electorate, which may ultimately prove to be his biggest hurdle in Florida.
Rubio, like many of his rivals, underestimated Trump’s staying power and overestimated his own juice with the base. He refused to take on Trump early in the race, apparently believing that a waiting game would be most effective. And when he finally did, it was a grating comedy routine that made fun of Trump for having small hands and suggesting front-runner wet his pants during a debate. In the process, he no longer resembled the carefully manicured image he and his team spent years protecting, but more like a WWF wrestler who hides under the ring during a royal rumble, only to shock the crowd by popping up at an opportune moment. It was a lurch, hard for voters to understand, which is never good for a politician.
And Rubio’s status as Annointed One and Future of the Republican Party had definite limits. The GOP base has repeatedly sent Rubio mixed signals, by regularly protecting their boy king but ultimately stopping short of elevating him fully to the throne. Consider that in 2012, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney had to halt his campaign in order to quell a rebellion from the base over a news report that Rubio hadn’t been vetted as a potential running mate. Even as recently as September, conservatives booed Trump at the Value Voters summit in Washington when he called Rubio a “clown.”
Now the most rabid conservatives are looking elsewhere. At a rally in Orlando on Saturday, Trump filled the stands with more than 10,000 people and featured one speaker after the next who just eviscerated Rubio while the crowd cheered every word.
“Little Marco Rubio,” Trump said, using the sneering honorific he’s bestowed on the 44-year-old senator. “He never shows up anywhere. I don’t know what the hell. What does he do with all of his free time?”
Rubio has the mind of a political strategist, and his most significant career accomplishment was in 2010 when he identified the deep distrust among conservatives for the state’s moderate Republican governor, Charlie Crist, and waged an unlikely but successful primary challenge against him for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat that year. He was identified as the first senator from the tea party in a New York Times Magazine profile that year.
But many of those men and women who helped that campaign – from his donors to volunteers – have since scattered, seeking others who they see as more committed to the conservative cause and fueled less by their own ambition.
“Marco’s lost touch with his first line of support,” said Mac McGehee, a Jacksonville paper company executive who was co-chairman of the finance team for Rubio’s Senate campaign and now supports Ted Cruz’s presidential bid. “He’s lost touch with a lot of the people that initially came out and supported him.”
McGehee said he felt burned by Rubio’s work on the 2013 immigration reform, which provided a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and questioned the senator’s effectiveness.
“It seems like his term in the Senate has been a calculated effort for the presidency,” he said. “It looks like he’s been running for the presidency for six years.”