When Sen. Marco Rubio turned 42 on May 28, his Facebook page was swamped with more than 4,000 messages from people livid with him for championing the immigration-reform bill that was moving through the Senate. The notes variously called him a turncoat, a RINO, a traitor, or worse. Some birthday greetings suggested he celebrate in Mexico, Cuba, or hell, while one cheerfully said, “Happy Birthday! Now Resign!”
But the real backlash for Rubio came a month later, after he voted for the Senate immigration-reform bill. Senators headed home for the weeklong July 4 recess, or in Rubio’s case, a week of conservative blowback and hometown heartache, including a Tea Party protest in front of his Miami office.
“It was like a suicide mission that has served no purpose that we can tell,” said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the Florida-based National Liberty Federation, of Rubio’s lead role on immigration reform. “The feedback I’ve received is that people are extremely upset with Marco. Tea Party members who were active with us and helped get Marco elected—several have said they’re no longer going to support him.”
Wilkinson organized the first Tea Party event ever held in West Palm Beach, complete with a little-known Senate candidate named Marco Rubio. Rubio’s speech was a hit, and his name was passed among Tea Party groups throughout the state and the country.
But at the time, Wilkinson also said some Tea Party supporters quizzed Rubio on his immigration stance and now believe he has taken the opposite position.
“He specifically said he wanted to enforce the borders and have a wall, and make immigration something that you have to earn and that that he wasn’t going to support amnesty,” Wilkinson said. “It’s left a lot of us wondering what happened.”
Although Tea Party supporters alone did not elect Rubio to the Senate, their early advocacy for him, and against Gov. Charlie Crist, gave Rubio crucial momentum, exposure, and a national fundraising network that undoubtedly fueled his rise against the better-known governor.
A split now with conservatives and Tea Party members—the base of his base—will make Rubio a different kind of Republican going forward, for better and worse.
Juan Fiol, a libertarian Republican from Miami who volunteered for Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign, says he won’t vote for Rubio again, nor will many Latinos he knows. “His own volunteers are turning against him. He’s in a lot of trouble,” Fiol said. “I am a Republican, but I do not identify with Rubio anymore. He could have been our savior, and he’s the nail in our coffin.”
Like Wilkinson, Fiol says Rubio “flip-flopped” on his immigration position since 2010. “He ran against this, that’s what bothers me,” Fiol said. “Quite a few times on Fox News, he would say, ‘I am for legal immigration. I am for securing the border.’ Then he turns around and supports amnesty. He might as well switch parties right now. He’s done.”
Rubio has called that kind of heated criticism from conservatives “a real trial for me,” but Alex Patton, a Florida Republican consultant, says Rubio should take the long view of the Tea Party reaction.
“I think the way the Tea Party people are treating Senator Rubio is downright shameful. I just think it’s an overreaction that’s emotionally driven that makes no sense at all,” Patton said. “If they follow through with their plans to attempt to primary him, they’re going to find out they are on the margins.”
Patton called Tea Party supporters “a relatively small but very vocal, very loud contingent” in Florida that can rightly claim credit for helping Rubio get to higher office. “They were a significant factor, they did play a role.” But Patton added, “They are not 100 percent responsible for his election.”
To Patton’s point, Rubio won 55 percent of Florida’s Latino vote in 2010, as well as a majority of a coalition made up of women, white voters, voters over 40, and people making more than $50,000 a year. A June 2013 Quinnipiac survey showed 58 percent of Floridians think undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country and given a path to citizenship with certain requirements.
“I think Rubio is going against the tide of the Tea Party on immigration, but I think he’s going with the tide of the majority of Floridians,” Patton said. “In the end, Senator Rubio is going to be fine, and if he does have national aspirations, it was a great political play for him.”
A Latino Decisions/America’s Voice poll released Monday backs that up.
While Rubio may have hurt himself at home with local supporters, the poll shows that his role on immigration reform has transformed his fortunes with national Latino voters almost overnight. He now dominates the potential 2016 GOP presidential field among Latinos, polling well ahead of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, and Rand Paul, and has a majority of Latinos saying they’d be willing to consider voting Republican for the first time in years. The same poll also showed Hillary Clinton taking nearly two thirds of the Latino vote against any Republican if she runs.
“He’s all in,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which co-sponsored the poll. “He paid a big price at least in the short run on the right, but I think he has positioned himself as the leading candidate who could do well with Latinos, which was not the case before.”
Although a 2016 Republican does not need to win the Latino vote to win the presidency, pollsters estimate that a GOP candidate would need to win at least 40 percent to 45 percent in key swing states like Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, and yes—Florida—to win the general election.
“That is a pretty high bar, but the candidate most likely to get that would be Rubio,” Sharry said, pointing out that John McCain’s 2008 Republican presidential nomination was fueled in large part by a huge win in Florida, where McCain dominated the Latino vote. Sharry said Rubio could fare even better than McCain in the primary and general elections, given his potential to reach Latino voters directly.
“Imagine him in an election running Spanish-language ads in Nevada and Florida and Colorado telling voters why he thought immigration reform was the right thing to do,” Sharry said. “That’s powerful.”
But to get to a general election in Florida or nationally in 2016, Rubio will have to make peace with Tea Party activists or make plans to go around them. For now, many say they’d rather support Rand Paul or Ted Cruz.
“Rubio lost his own people and he doesn’t even realize it,” said Juan Fiol. “He’s not going to make it past his primary as senator, let alone president. He’s in for a big surprise.”