Rubio Lays the Groundwork for a White House Run
Policy + Politics

Rubio Lays the Groundwork for a White House Run

Reuters/Mike Thelier

It’s a long way to November 2016, but anybody who tells you that presidential campaigns don’t start until close to the election simply hasn’t been paying attention for the past two election cycles. Barack Obama was plainly laying the groundwork for his 2008 campaign in 2006, and Mitt Romney, who lost the Republican nomination in 2008, arguably never stopped campaigning until he won it in 2012. 

So when Florida Senator Marco Rubio appeared at a podium in Washington on Monday afternoon to lay out his proposals for economic growth, touching on subjects as diverse as trade policy and reforming the tax code to selling off wireless spectrum and slashing federal regulations, it was hard to read his remarks as something other than a proto-stump speech. 

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Rubio delivered it well, speaking at Google Headquarters in Washington, to a forum assembled by the Jack Kemp Foundation. Weaving his plan to create economic opportunity into the story of his own upbringing as the son immigrants who crafted a middle class American life despite humble beginnings in their native Cuba.

If the country follows his plan, he said, “We will write the latest chapter in the story of the greatest nation the world has ever known.” 

Who is this guy?
Should Rubio officially join the race – something unlikely to happen until next year – he brings a compelling personal story with him. Rubio’s parents emigrated from Cuba in 1956. His father worked as a hotel bartender and his mother as a maid and cashier to help support the family. Though at one point Rubio described his parents as exiles from Cuba driven out by Fidel Castro’s takeover of the country, the evidence indicates that they came to the U.S. before the Cuban revolution even began.

Rubio went to community college before earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Florida and his law degree at the University of Miami. At the relatively young age of 28, Rubio won a special election to fill an open seat in the Florida House of Representatives beginning in 2000, and by 2007 had risen to Speaker of the House.

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In May 2009, Rubio announced that he would run for the U.S. Senate, and challenged sitting governor Charlie Crist in the Republican primary. He beat Crist, who switched his affiliation to Independent to run against Rubio in the general election, where Rubio beat him again.

What does he stand for?
Rubio came to Washington in 2010 with strong Tea Party conservative credentials. For the most part, he lived up to those expectations in his performance in the Senate, earning a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union in his first two years.

Some key positions:

  • He is an ardent fiscal conservative. Early in his tenure, Rubio voted against the Budget Control Act of 2011, a compromise measure designed to avoid a federal default, and has strongly opposed more recent initiatives to raise the federal debt ceiling.
  • He is also a strong social conservative, having spoken out against both abortion rights and gay marriage. 
  • Rubio finds himself at odds with many in his party over immigration. He joined a group of Senators in support of a bipartisan immigration bill last year that included an onerous “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants, and faced tremendous backlash from the far right, which views any such path as “amnesty.” Rubio eventually rolled back his support, despite the bill having passed the Senate, but he continues to contend that deporting the twelve million illegals in the country right now isn’t viable, and that leaving them in the country as permanent second-class citizens is also unworkable.

Related: At CPAC, Reagan Might as Well Have Been in the Room

Where does his support come from?
If Marco Rubio has a power base, it’s no longer the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He appeared at the annual gala for the far-right last week, and when the results for the CPAC Presidential Straw Poll were announced, Rubio came in seventh place, with a mere 6 percent of the vote. This, just one year after coming in second to this year’s repeat winner Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Rubio’s stock as a national candidate plummeted briefly in 2013, when he delivered a halting response to the President’s State of the Union address, punctuated by an awkward step off-camera to gulp a glass of water. But the fact that Rubio was the one chosen to give the response in the first place indicates that the Republican establishment saw him as a potentially significant part of the party’s future. Hispanic, and born to immigrant parents, he is seen as giving the GOP a chance to change its fortunes with the growing Hispanic voting bloc in the country, which overwhelmingly favors Democrats.

Financially, Rubio’s support comes primarily from individual donors – 84 percent of his campaign contributions in total, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and nearly half is from large-dollar contributors. The single largest identifiable sector giving to Rubio is retirees, who have given $3.3 million since 2009. Organizations like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund have also made six-figure contributions to Rubio.

What’s His Next Move?
Rubio is hardly a prohibitive front-runner, so spending the next year running in place and trying not to make any mistakes isn’t really much of an option for him. He has been aggressively speaking out in public on foreign and domestic policy, and will likely do more of the same for the foreseeable future.

His remarks in Washington on Monday suggest that Rubio may have left nervous water-gulping behind him, has found something of a comfort zone on camera, and has proved that he can deliver some stirring rhetoric about the future of the country. How that will resonate with Republican primary voters in 2016, of course, remains to be seen.

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