MELBOURNE, Florida — If Marco Rubio’s campaign flames out in Florida tonight, as polls suggest, it will be delicious revenge for the Tea Partiers who have been waiting years to embarrass the senator in his home state.
“We’re going to have a sweet taste in our mouths tomorrow when little Marco gets embarrassed by those he betrayed. He betrayed all of Florida, but mostly he betrayed people like me who worked hard to get him elected,” said Dan Ray, a founding member of Tea Party group in The Villages, a large retirement community in Florida, where Rubio campaigned earlier this week.
When Rubio joined with the so-called Gang of Eight to propose a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill, Tea Party groups saw it as akin to an act of treason. They had supported the young lawmaker, preferring him to the alternative, Gov. Charlie Crist (who later became a Democrat). They had also trusted him on the issue of immigration—and worked as foot soldiers to get him elected.
“[Rubio] didn’t run with the establishment Republican base. In 2010, he ran with the constitutional conservative base. That’s who got him into office,” said KrisAnne Hall, a constitutional attorney and self-described “original constitutionalist” from Wellborn, Florida. “He got into the office quoting the Constitution and standing with the Founding Fathers… The people who elected him in 2010 don’t trust him anymore.”
Like Ray, Hall had supported Rubio in 2010, volunteering as a liaison for his staff with conservative activists. She now says she is “ashamed” that she worked so hard for him.
Jack Oliver, the legislative director for Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, can recite the date, from memory, when he believes he was sold a bill of goods. It was Dec. 22, 2009, he said: the day when Rubio “conned us all... and then went out to con the rest of the citizens of Florida.”
Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, a group that opposes illegal immigration, supported Rubio in his campaign for Senate that election cycle, in part due to an hourlong-conversation they had with him on that fateful day in 2009. During that meeting, Oliver said, Rubio pledged never to support “amnesty or legalization of people” in the United States without documentation.
“He ran for president as a graceful way to exit. He would have lost the Senate seat if he had run for re-election, I think,” Oliver said.
Cynthia Lucas, who is a coordinator of the Martin, Florida, 9/12 Tea Party Committee, said she even had more sympathy for democratic socialist Bernie Sanders than Rubio, though she wouldn’t be able to bring herself to vote for either. The reason, she explained, is that while Sanders has the wrong answers, he is at least asking the right questions.
“[Sanders’s] heart is in the right place,” Lucas said. “He understands the bottom line: Everyone in this economy has been affected. When corporations get in bed with government, we get fascism. That’s what we have on both sides of the aisle.”
The Rubio campaign declined to respond to a question about whether it had made its outreach to various Tea Party groups while stumping recently across the state.
“If Marco Rubio had kept his promise to Florida voters and had gone up there to oppose amnesty… Donald Trump wouldn’t even be in the race. It would be Marco Rubio up there, with the rest of the field trying to knock him out,” Oliver predicted.
Instead of a resounding victory on home turf, polls seem to indicate a humiliating defeat is in Rubio’s very near future. A number of public polls show billionaire businessman Donald Trump leading Marco Rubio by double digits, in some cases by more than 20 percentage points. A Quinnipiac University poll published Monday shows Trump leading Rubio in the senator’s home state, 46 percent to 22 percent.
Despite the long odds, Rubio is still campaigning with confidence.
“Like always, it comes down to Florida. Tomorrow, this state will elect 99 delegates,” Rubio said Monday afternoon while campaigning outside a small restaurant in Melbourne, on the state’s eastern coast. “If we win by just one vote... we get 99 delegates, and the [momentum] it gives our campaign will carry us on to Utah, and Arizona, and ultimately to the nomination and back here in November so we can defeat Hillary Clinton.”
But even Rubio’s staunchest supporters acknowledge that immigration is the issue that is hardest to explain to Republican primary voters.
“I’d be lying to you if that wasn’t a common theme among those who were undecided and those who are struggling to stick with Marco to the end, the Gang of Eight issue,” Tom Gaitens, a county leader for Rubio and formerly the state director for the conservative group FreedomWorks, told The Daily Beast. “If it weren’t for that, Marco would be running away with it, I think. It’s been an anchor that is hurting him a little bit, I think.”
“Largely people in the Tea Party are angry at him over [immigration], and on that issue alone,” Gaitens added.
While the opinions of Tea Party conservatives in Florida haven’t changed, the movement doesn’t carry the same fervor today as it did in its heydey in the first years of the Obama administration, motivated by frustration over the recession and Obamacare. Nor have Tea Party conservatives been unified in their pick for president, with activists choosing between Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz.
“Tea Party membership has gone down: The flame has kind of fizzled out a little bit from back in its heyday… people are just burned out,” Olivier said.
But Florida’s Tea Partiers have found at least one unifying theme to rally against once more: repaying Rubio on Tuesday night—by making sure he loses big.
And Oliver couldn’t be more pleased: “I expect him to lose by double digits… The informed voters aren’t buying his B.S. anymore.”