Florida’s Junior Senator has shot up the Republican Presidential rankings in recent weeks, becoming without any question a top-tier candidate. Rubio leads some national polling and unlike other candidates in both parties has had an almost flawless campaign launch. How exactly did this happen, and why is Rubio suddenly a real contender for the GOP nomination?
My thinking about the Republican Party’s nominating process has always been that the GOP goes with an approach that rewards long-term officeholders, those who have run previously for President and loyalty to the party establishment. The party also does not like nominating hard-right conservatives even though their electoral strategy depends on throwing read meat to the GOP base. Every insurgent conservative candidacy since 1968 has been beaten back – be it John Ashbrook in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1976, Pat Robertson in 1988, Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012.
But Rubio’s voting record which is among the most conservative in the US Senate by most objective measures is not what he is running on. He’s running on the very 1980’s Reagan-esque themes of a bright future for the country and a sunny side up approach to conservatism. But at the same time he’s hitting conservative themes and looking youthful, energetic and the symbol of a changing America. So he is neither an establishment candidate or an insurgent one – at some point he might become one or another but right now he is neither. Winning a nomination is a long slog, but Rubio has gotten out of the gates properly and now seems to be winning some of the early love money that is so important.
The first stage of winning a nomination is to be able to raise money but the second stage is to do well in the Iowa Caucus where power brokers like Steve King hold sway and get a ticket to New Hampshire. Previous Iowa Caucus winners on the GOP side include the televangelist Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. To say Iowa, a largely Democratic state at the Presidential level has a religious dominated Republican caucus would be an understatement and Rubio knows this. Thus Rubio has tried to show he can connect with this important base of Iowa voters by giving fundamentalist speeches on his previous trips to the state and deliberately pushing conservative buttons with his rhetorical barbs on issues. Despite his “flavor of the month feel” Rubio has proven to have a certain degree of staying power as a national force but perhaps the deeper he gets into this campaign, the more gloss comes off his profile. Still, his political skills have proven to be formidable and he has bounced back time and again from being written off by pundits and members of the GOP establishment.
As a budding member of the Republican Party’s Washington establishment, he could get a ticket out of Iowa to New Hampshire just by being a media sensation, whose former critics have lauded his pragmatism. Pat Buchanan of course won the New Hampshire Primary in 1996 but that was only because Lamar Alexander, then a moderate by GOP standards carved substantially into Bob Dole’s establishment vote. John McCain and Mitt Romney both perceived as the most established candidates in early primaries carried the state in 2008 and 2012 respectively. Rubio’s standing among establishment Republicans is growing and should Scott Walker emerge as his most potent rival leaving Iowa especially if Jeb Bush falters, Rubio could become the establishment choice as early as the New Hampshire Primary.
Rubio seems to have survived all of his previous mini-crises better than other Republicans. His “sip watched around the globe” could have been fatal if he was as unnatural as Jindal, Christie or Mark Sanford but he survived it. He somehow was able to take the right-wing rebellion on his immigration views and spin it to where he looked reasonable and conservative – thanks largely to Jeb Bush’s willingness to own a more aggressive pro-immigration stance.
Being the April 2015 “Flavor of the Month” might have no bearing on where things stand in February 2016. But conversely, it could tell us a great deal as Rubio’s candidacy which was being laughed off a few months ago is now the talk of political pundits across the state and nation. Maybe Rubio really does have the complete package to win the GOP nomination and transform the optics of the GOP .
Too early to tell. Wait until we get deeper into the process and his fellow Republicans start to fling the mud.