How Marco Rubio Could Save the Senate for the GOP
Policy + Politics

How Marco Rubio Could Save the Senate for the GOP

© Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

Sen. Marco Rubio, the one-time boy wonder of Florida politics who belittled the Senate as a vast wasteland while vowing to usher in “A New American Century” during his ill-fated GOP presidential campaign, has reversed course and now intends to seek election to a second term.

Rubio’s decision, announced Wednesday, was not unexpected. With the GOP facing the real possibility of losing control of the Senate in November in the wake of Donald Trump’s candidacy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and other GOP leaders put enormous pressure on Rubio to change course and seek another term.

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McConnell was so worried about his party’s plight that he ordered other senators to mount a full-court press to convince Rubio to seek a second term. “Control of the Senate hangs in the balance,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told The Washington Post on Wednesday in recounting his conversation with Rubio.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said on Thursday that Republican strategists he has surveyed are unanimous in saying Rubio’s announcement improves their party’s chances “dramatically” to retain control of the Senate. “The people I talked to think it’s a no-brainer,” Rothenberg said; “Rubio is by far the best candidate they can put up.”

At the same time, Rothenberg thinks the 45-year-old Rubio may be risking his long-term political future by running again after missing countless votes and hearings in Washington and complaining that he was fed up with the slow pace of the Senate. Rothenberg argues that Rubio would be better off temporarily setting aside his political career and entering the private sector.

“He’s still a young guy,” Rothenberg said in an interview. “One of his problems is that he seems so politically driven and politically ambitious that I think it makes some people skeptical.”

Rubio said yesterday, “In politics, admitting you’ve changed your mind is not something most people like to do, but here it goes.” Party operatives say that with his name recognition, political charisma and skills as a fundraiser, Rubio will dominate the Florida Senate race, even as Trump lags behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by eight points in the latest statewide survey.

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The numbers and the political map do look daunting for the Republicans. Since January 2015, the GOP has held a 54-to-46 seat majority. Republicans must defend 24 of those seats this fall while just 10 Democratic seats will be on the line. The Democrats could reclaim control of the Senate – and thwart the GOP plan to dismantle Obamacare and other key elements of President Obama’s legacy -- by picking up five seats.

There are at least six GOP-held seats now considered to be in play, including Arizona, New Hampshire, Illinois and the three crucial swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. If the Democrats pick up five of those seats without losing any of their incumbents, then it’s game over. Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and his party would have an outright claim on all the leadership positions and committee chairs.

Alternatively, if Clinton beats Trump, then a new Democratic vice president would preside over the Senate and could break 50-50 tie votes in reorganizing the Senate. In that case, the Democrats would only need to pick up four seats in November to be in position to claim the majority.

While Rubio’s reputation has been tarnished by a poorly run presidential campaign that degenerated into schoolyard name calling with the combative Trump, few question that he would be his party’s strongest contender to hang onto the Florida seat. A new Quinnipiac University poll this week shows that in hypothetical matchups, Rubio leads likely Democratic challenger Rep. Patrick Murphy, 47 percent to 40 percent, and tops another potential Democratic rival, Rep. Alan Grayson, 48 percent to 40 percent.

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Murphy, a fast-rising Democratic star who has been backed by President Obama and Vice President Biden, has other political woes: A CBS4 News investigation of Murphy’s background as a certified public accountant and business owner revealed that the Democrat in some cases exaggerated his experience or made misleading or false statements.

Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a close ally of Rubio’s, pulled out of the Senate primary contest this week to help clear a path for his friend, while Rep. Ron DeSantis scrapped his own bid for the Senate GOP nomination and announced he would run for the House again. The August 30 primary contest won’t necessarily be a cake walk for Rubio, who still must get past Carlos Beruff, a wealthy Florida homebuilder and conservative who has accused Rubio of being a shameless political opportunist positioning himself for another campaign for president in 2020.

Rubio spent more than a year on the presidential campaign trail trashing the Senate and arguing that he needed to be in the Oval Office to influence policy. At times, he even sought to make a virtue of his absences. Outraged critics including several Florida newspapers denounced Rubio for drawing a government paycheck without meeting his basic duties as a senator.

Rubio is certain to be pummeled by his opponents for his about-face after solemnly vowing to retire from the Senate at the end of the year. While he will have a tough assignment in explaining away his previous unflattering comments about life in the Senate, he may be able to use them to his advantage by calling for reform and appealing to voters dissatisfied with the status quo.

“Like everything else, people see what they want to see and they value what they want to value as they decide on their candidate choices,” Rothenberg said. “And they rationalize away things that make them uncomfortable … and they embrace the stuff that confirms their conclusions.”

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Earlier this month, Rubio told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that the terrorist attack on a gay night club in Orlando that killed 49 people had “impacted” his thinking and made him “think a little bit about your service to you country and where you can be most useful to your country.”

Yesterday, he offered yet another rationale for trying to remain in Congress, this time citing the Senate’s constitutional power to “act as a check and balance on the excesses of a president.”

“I think no matter how this election turns out, there’s reason to be concerned,” he told his backers on a conference call, according to The Washington Post. He said that Clinton would produce four more years of the same “failed” policies and executive overreach. He added that Trump “is also worrisome to me.”