Marco Rubio Won’t Back Down to Jeb Bush

The Republican senator thinks he’s got a different policy platform and distinct donor network.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during a National Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon May 13, 2014 in Washington, DC. Sen. Rubio delivered a policy speech on social security and answered questions during the luncheon. 
National Journal
Dec. 16, 2014, 3:32 p.m.

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.”

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