The Flap Over Rubio’s Finances Could Help or Hurt Him
Policy + Politics

The Flap Over Rubio’s Finances Could Help or Hurt Him

For years, leading Republican presidential candidates have struggled with controversy over their personal wealth.

Former President George W. Bush was frequently portrayed during his first campaign as the scion of a wealthy and politically powerful family who had much in life handed to him on a silver platter. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is so wealthy that he had trouble recalling how many homes he and his wife, Cindy, owned during the 2008 presidential campaign. And former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, of course, was portrayed by his opponents in 2012 as an insensitive tycoon who only cared about the wealthiest one percent of the public.

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Now comes Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a fast-rising star currently in the top tier of candidates for the 2016 GOP presidential campaign, who has the opposite perception problem: The lawyer and former Florida state legislator has struggled financially for years, run up large debts and—by his own admission—has done a poor job of managing his personal finances and occasional financial windfalls.

Although Rubio’s money problems have been aired off and on dating back to his 2010 Senate election campaign, The New York Times on Tuesday published a  blow-by-blow account of the would-be president’s chaotic personal finances.  Among the newspaper’s findings: Rubio struggled with student debt, mortgages and other loans totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet after a publisher advanced him $800,000 for a book describing growing up as the son of Cuban immigrants, he paid off his $150,000 student loan, but also spent $80,000 on what The Times called a 25-foot “luxury” speed boat. The boat, below, is a fishing boat according to Rubio and Politico.

The EdgeWater 245CC Deep-V Center Console, the same make and model as Rubio's boat - Politico

During his campaign for Senate in 2010,   Rubio was sharply criticized by his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist and others for using a state Republican Party credit card to pay for a paving project at his home and for travel to a family reunion, which Rubio acknowledged was a mistake.  He also put his wife, Jeanette, on a political action committee payroll. And just recently, Rubio disclosed that he had liquidated a $68,000 retirement account to cover his children’s tuition and to purchase a $3,000 refrigerator and new air conditioner.

Related: With Eye on Middle Class, Rubio Floats Tax Plan

While he has experienced financial hardship throughout his political career in Florida and Washington, Rubio at one time landed a job with a high profile Miami law firm that paid him $300,000 a year during the early 2000s. And he has benefitted handsomely from his long-standing relationship with Florida billionaire auto dealer Norman Braman who has helped bankroll Rubio’s campaigns and helped support the Rubios by hiring them and subsidizing Marco when he was a college instructor.

The Times report concluded that Rubio had been reckless in his handling of his own money and had lost tens of thousands of dollars through an unwise real estate transaction. Rubio has acknowledged his lack of bookkeeping skills, and told The Times through a statement that “Like most Americans, I know what it’s like for money to be a limited resource and to have to manage it accordingly.”

Five days ago, The Times wrote a piece about the 17 traffic tickets that Rubio and his wife Jeannette had incurred over the last 18 years (13 were Jeannette’s). With this second piece, Rubio’s campaign and supporters immediately branded the new Times report a political hit-job by the elite mainstream media and reportedly used the articles to help raise $100,000 over the past few days.

“If you’re a Republican, there is probably no better bogeyman for you than The New York Times,” GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak told The Hill.

Related: Rubio, His Eye on 2016, Vows a ‘New American Century’  

Alex Conant, communications director for the Rubio campaign, posted a response on the Rubio campaign website denouncing yesterday’s New York Times report as “the latest in their continued hits against Marco and his family.”

“First The New York Times attacked Marco over traffic tickets, and now they think he doesn’t have enough money,” Conant wrote. “Of course if he was worth millions, The Times would then attack him for being too rich, like they did to Mitt Romney.”

“What The Times misses is that getting rich is not what has driven Senator Rubio’s financial decisions,” Conant added. “His goal at this stage in his life is to provide his four children with a good home, a quality education, and a safe and happy upbringing.”

In the short-term at least, Rubio may be getting some political mileage out of the flap over the Times reports. “Everything's fair game in presidential politics, and Rubio's had less scrutiny than most,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato, in an email.  “But these are hardly killer charges. If Rubio gets the votes of everyone who has made some irresponsible financial moves or gotten multiple traffic tickets, he'll win in a landslide. “

Related: Why Marco Rubio Might Just Beat Hillary Clinton

Yet the Times reports raise the perplexing question of why voters should trust a man who was perpetually in debt, admittedly mishandled his money and was occasionally bailed out of financial problems by a political patron to manage the federal budget and taxpayer dollars.

Nicholas Carnes, a public policy professor at Duke University who has studied voters’ attitudes towards politicians based on politicians’ financial and economic backgrounds said today that Rubio may suffer from a “double-whammy” of voter disapproval if the controversy persists.

“I think it would be a mistake for the Rubio campaign to try to say, ‘Rubio understands the problems facing people like you, because his opponents will have a ready response,” Carnes said in an interview. “Most Americans have never been paid $800,000 for a book. Most Americans have never bought an $80,000 speed boat.  And so I think with that narrative out there, the Rubio campaign should probably stay away from trying to portray him as someone who is just like the voters.”

“The message that I think sounds strategically better is that Rubio is someone who has lived the American dream and has experienced just how hard it is to move up in the United States,” Carnes added.

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