Will Marco Rubio Be the Last Establishment Man Standing?

Stacked against Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Paul Ryan, the senator from Florida may look pretty good to the party.

Caption:WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at Google's office while delivering a speech to the Jack Kemp Foundation March 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. Rubio discussed Ã’new policies to unleash American innovation and create well paying, middle class jobs during his address as part of the Kemp Forum on economic growth.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
April 8, 2014, 2:56 p.m.

The pro­spect­ive Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial primary field can be broken down in­to three tiers: There’s the tea-party wing, where Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are already com­pet­ing for the most con­ser­vat­ive voters. There’s the gubernat­ori­al wing, where less­er-known Re­pub­lic­ans like Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er and Ohio Gov. John Kasich will be look­ing to par­lay their ex­ec­ut­ive ex­per­i­ence in­to a spot on the na­tion­al stage.

But most im­port­ant to the pro­cess is the es­tab­lish­ment wing, the can­did­ate whom party lead­ers and donors grav­it­ate to­ward, usu­ally early on. Des­pite ru­mors of their de­mise, GOP in­siders have al­ways played a crit­ic­al role in Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tions and are show­ing no signs of slow­ing down for 2016. The es­tab­lish­ment grav­it­ated to Mitt Rom­ney not long after his 2008 loss, anoin­ted George W. Bush as the front-run­ner well be­fore the 2000 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign began, and shep­her­ded Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush through con­ser­vat­ive in­sur­gen­cies. Des­pite the pres­ence of so­cial con­ser­vat­ives and tea parties over the years, the Re­pub­lic­an Party has ten­ded to rally be­hind a more mod­er­ate con­tender.

What’s dif­fer­ent about 2016 is the gap­ing va­cu­um left by two straight pres­id­en­tial losses and a field whose most vis­ible can­did­ates carry glar­ing vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies. In latch­ing onto the third rail of im­mig­ra­tion and bait­ing tea-party con­ser­vat­ives with his un­apo­lo­get­ic sup­port of Com­mon Core edu­ca­tion­al stand­ards, Jeb Bush acts lately as if he’s try­ing to find an ex­cuse not to run. He last ran for of­fice in 2002, a life­time ago in polit­ics. One Re­pub­lic­an of­fice­hold­er noted re­cently how strik­ing it was to see the gen­er­a­tion­al di­vide in Con­gress between the mem­bers elec­ted be­fore 2006 and those elec­ted in the George W. Bush down­turn and later. Jeb Bush is very much a creature of that by­gone Re­pub­lic­an era: At his found­a­tion, he has fo­cused on edu­ca­tion and im­mig­ra­tion re­form, but the Re­pub­lic­an base is now much more con­cerned with over­reach­ing gov­ern­ment, cut­ting fed­er­al spend­ing, and re­peal­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law.

Bush’s biggest vul­ner­ab­il­ity, however, may be his last name. In an en­vir­on­ment where voters are dis­sat­is­fied with Wash­ing­ton and politi­cians, the pro­spect of run­ning as the third mem­ber of a fam­ily to seek the pres­id­ency seems like a tough sell. One of the strongest points of con­trast Re­pub­lic­ans would have against Hil­lary Clin­ton is the change ar­gu­ment — switch­ing up parties after two terms of Demo­crat­ic rule.

The oth­er early es­tab­lish­ment fa­vor­ite was New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie, who is still giv­ing every in­dic­a­tion that he’s run­ning for pres­id­ent in 2016. It’s hard to be­lieve he’ll be able to get past the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge scan­dal, es­pe­cially since the U.S. at­tor­ney’s in­vest­ig­a­tion looks like it will linger on in­to the pres­id­en­tial primary sea­son. If any­thing, signs point to things po­ten­tially get­ting worse for the gov­ernor, with the in­cent­ives for some of his closest al­lies — former Deputy Chief of Staff Brid­get Kelly, cam­paign man­ager Bill Step­i­en, and ous­ted Port Au­thor­ity of­fi­cial Dav­id Wild­stein — to sell Christie out.

If Christie is cleared of any wrong­do­ing, he will still have to con­vince donors that his ar­gu­ment that he’s the most elect­able Re­pub­lic­an still holds, and per­suade enough con­ser­vat­ives that he’s one of them. With his out­spoken per­son­al­ity, im­press­ive com­mu­nic­a­tions skills, and sharp polit­ic­al in­stincts, that would have been pos­sible without scan­dal loom­ing. But giv­en the real­ity on the ground, get­ting be­hind Christie will prob­ably be a bridge too far for many Re­pub­lic­an rank and file to cross.

As Rom­ney’s run­ning mate in 2012, Rep. Paul Ry­an would have an in­side track to the nom­in­a­tion as the es­tab­lish­ment fa­vor­ite. Well liked by his con­gres­sion­al col­leagues and pop­u­lar with donors, Ry­an shouldn’t be un­der­es­tim­ated if he de­cides to run for pres­id­ent. But few close to the House Budget Com­mit­tee chair­man be­lieve he’s eager to jump in. His bi­par­tis­an budget com­prom­ise with Sen. Patty Mur­ray of Wash­ing­ton didn’t win him good­will from the con­ser­vat­ive base. And he’s slated to suc­ceed re­tir­ing Rep. Dave Camp as the next House Ways and Means chair­man in 2015, a po­s­i­tion bet­ter-suited to ac­com­plish tax and en­ti­tle­ment re­form — es­pe­cially with the pro­spect of work­ing with a Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled Sen­ate.

That leaves Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, who iron­ic­ally began 2013 as the early fa­vor­ite with the es­tab­lish­ment. After a set­back push­ing com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form, he’s be­gun to raise his pro­file again by call­ing for a more mus­cu­lar for­eign policy, an is­sue that’s be­gin­ning to loom large in 2016 and one in which he’s one of the few pro­spect­ive GOP can­did­ates with ex­per­i­ence. Ru­bio’s His­pan­ic back­ground, cha­risma, and pro­lif­ic fun­drais­ing are fun­da­ment­al ad­vant­ages that he holds over his com­pet­i­tion. And he’s one of the few con­tenders with sol­id vote rat­ings from out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups such as the Club for Growth, without di­min­ish­ing his stature among Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers.

Ru­bio has ac­cu­mu­lated more than $2.6 mil­lion in his cam­paign ac­counts, and he’s ex­pec­ted to vis­it the early primary states in com­ing months. He teased the pro­spect of a pres­id­en­tial run to con­ser­vat­ive talk-show host Hugh He­witt, hint­ing he may not run for reelec­tion to the Sen­ate in 2016. At a time when Re­pub­lic­ans are hav­ing trouble passing im­mig­ra­tion policies to win over His­pan­ics, they may settle for get­ting be­hind a Cuban-Amer­ic­an can­did­ate with an in­spir­a­tion­al life story as a backup plan.

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