Jeb Bush just declared that he’s preparing to run for president, and Marco Rubio didn’t bat an eye.
Rubio and his inner circle have long insisted that his decision on a 2016 campaign would not be influenced by other candidates—not even Bush, who worked closely with Rubio in Florida and has been considering a White House bid of his own.
So when the former Florida governor on Tuesday became first prominent Republican out of the gate, Rubio, right on cue, made it known that he won’t back down.
“Marco has a lot of respect for Governor Bush, and believes he would be a formidable candidate,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said in a statement after Bush’s surprise announcement. “However, Marco’s decision on whether to run for President or re-election will be based on where he can best achieve his agenda to restore the American Dream—not on who else might be running.”
The two worked together closely in Tallahassee a decade ago, when Bush was governor and Rubio was a rising star in Florida’s Legislature who would eventually become the state’s House speaker. Because of that political connection, and their personal relationship, it has often been assumed that only one would seek the Republican nomination in 2016.
That now seems unlikely.
Rubio’s decision isn’t made yet; the senator is up for reelection in 2016 and he cannot seek two federal offices simultaneously. But the presidential gears are turning inside Rubio’s operation. He has kept a low profile of late, but has been huddling regularly with political advisers and policy scholars, and is ready to unleash a massive media blitz next month with the release of his second book, American Dreams.
Certainly, the prospect of a Bush candidacy has loomed over Rubio, as many Republicans believe the popular former governor would suck Florida’s donor community dry and leave Rubio without a political home base. But that narrative doesn’t seem daunting to the freshman senator. To the contrary, people familiar with Team Rubio’s deliberations say they’ve concluded that Rubio and Bush are likely to draw support—financial and otherwise—from different pockets of the party.
“Jeb has a deep sleeper-cell network of people who worked for him, worked for his brother, worked for his father. I think Marco has a lot more touch and ties with the conservative activist base in the state, and in the last few years that activist base has been transformed into what was once the more traditional Republican establishment,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida GOP consultant who has long-standing ties to both camps.
Even if both run, Wilson dismissed the idea that it should be seen as a two-man contest. “It’s not going to be a race of Jeb versus Marco. It’s going to be a race of Jeb versus Christie versus Marco and everyone else in the pile.”¦ This is looking like a 10-way rotating knife fight.”
Still, there’s no denying that Rubio and Bush could be on collision course—if not immediately for votes and strategists and volunteers, then for financial backing from the same pool of GOP donors in their shared home state.
That competition, more than any other, could go a long way toward determining whether Florida is big enough for both Bush and Rubio.
“I think Jeb would prevail,” said Paul Senft, the former Republican national committeeman from Florida. “He’s actually governed, and Rubio has been fighting from a minority position in the Senate since he’s been there. So I don’t think he carries the same weight.”
“They have a lot of common donors,” Senft added. “But I really believe as far as reach and ability to raise the larger dollars here—and raise them nationally—Governor Bush would raise far and away above what Senator Rubio could raise.”
Rubio’s team refused to bite when asked to respond to that assertion—in keeping with their strategy of playing the senator’s cards close to the vest for now.
Still, it’s evident that Rubio won’t be cowed by Bush’s family connections and fundraising network. The senator himself now heads a well-financed operation, the Reclaim America PAC, that brought in—and doled out—significant sums of campaign cash in the midterm elections. (Rubio’s PAC raised $3.8 million for the 2014 cycle, and spent every penny and then some; its $4 million in expenditures included, among other things, donations to GOP candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire.)
It’s true that Bush and Rubio would be fighting for many of the same donors in Florida; it’s also true that they occupy decidedly different spaces on political spectrum.
Bush, 61, has deep connections to the GOP establishment, and, despite an objectively conservative record in Florida, has been cast as an ideological moderate due to his stances on immigration and education. His brother and father were the last two Republican presidents, and he will draw from the extensive Bush family network for operational and financial support.
Rubio, a 43-year-old freshman senator, shook the political landscape in 2010 by leveraging enormous tea-party support to win an upset victory in Florida. Some of that goodwill evaporated when he coauthored a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013 that provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Still, with his soaring rhetoric and up-from-the-bootstraps biography, conservatives seem increasingly willing to forgive the immigration incident and welcome his presidential candidacy.
“I think he made a big mistake. But he’s got plenty of time to undo that,” Brent Bozell, the conservative activist leader, said of Rubio in a recent interview. “And he’s got so many other strong assets that he brings to the table. I think he’ll be just fine.” (Meanwhile, Bozell’s online grassroots powerhouse, ForAmerica, launched an immediate broadside against Bush within hours of his announcement Tuesday.)
That Rubio and Bush have starkly different profiles and appeals make it difficult to foresee, at least in the early going, any sort of one-on-one elimination match between the Florida heavyweights. They even share a common vulnerability, immigration, making it unlikely that one would attack the other on that front.
If and when Bush and Rubio do tangle, one likely topic is education. Bush’s steadfast support of Common Core—the national standards that dictate mandatory levels of proficiency students must attain each year in certain subjects—is viewed as his greatest liability in a Republican primary. The program has very recently become a point of ideological division within the GOP, with critics claiming it represents egregious overreach by the federal government.
It was notable last summer, then, when Rubio put daylight between himself and Bush on Common Core. “This effort to coerce states into adhering to national curriculum standards is not the best way to help our children attain the best education,” he told the Tampa Bay Times.
Wilson, the Florida GOP consultant, said he has “no dog in the fight.” But he noted that he has polled the issue extensively, and suggested the former governor ignores the backlash at his own peril.
“Jeb Bush in this race has an opponent named Jeb Bush, and his running mate is Common Core,” Wilson said. “Until he gets it through his head that it’s poisonous in a Republican primary, he could do all this other stuff right, but it’s a poison pill in his operation that offsets, unfortunately, an awful lot of Jeb’s absolutely sterling credentials as a conservative.”
Bush, for his part, has not budged. At an event for his education institute in Washington last month, he argued that “the rigor of the Common Core state standards must be the new minimum in classrooms.”
Bush’s persistence on this issue is consistent with an overall approach he laid out a few weeks later, telling another conference in Washington that a successful Republican candidate must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general.”
Whether or not Rubio tries to upend that strategy with a strong challenge from Bush’s right remains to be seen. In Florida, some of their mutual friends are still holding out hope for a settlement that prevents an in-state showdown.
“I would hope they would sit down and reason together,” said Senft, the former RNC member. “The consensus is that it’s right for them to work it out.”