Rubio Promised to Leave the Senate. Now He’s Hoping National Security Will Help Him Stay.
Foreign policy cred didn’t help Marco Rubio secure the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination. Will it help him hold his Senate seat?
When Sen. Marco Rubio dropped out of the 2016 presidential race in March after being crushed in his home state by Donald Trump, supporters at his sparsely attended final rally in Florida cried and shouted out “No Marco!” as he announced his decision.
It was a somber moment for fans of the freshman Republican, who had just five years earlier been hailed as the new face of his party. It was also a somber moment for the hawkish wing of the Republican Party, which strongly supported Rubio’s belief in a muscular foreign policy centered on a willingness to use force abroad. Since his 2010 election, Rubio had steadily sought to build up his credentials on foreign policy in anticipation of a presidential run, but those carefully laid plans had been upended by a lopsided defeat to a New York real-estate magnate with zero national security experience and a neo-isolationist worldview that stood in almost direct contrast to everything Rubio espoused.
There was also the seeming finality of Rubio’s concession: The Floridian had never hidden his distaste for the Senate and adamantly insisted throughout the mudslinging of the Republican primary that he would not run for reelection to his Senate seat. “I have only said like 10000 times I will be a private citizen in January,” he tweeted in May.
Flash forward a month, and Rubio has just reversed himself. The senator said Wednesday that the national security challenges facing the United States — highlighted by the recent terrorist attack in Orlando that left 49 dead — compelled him to run.
“In politics, admitting you’ve changed your mind is not something most people like to do,” he said in a statement Wednesday morning. “But here it goes.”
“In the end,” Rubio added, “there was simply too much at stake for any other choice.”
The decision represents a high-stakes political calculation. Two losses in his home state could end his political career — but a win, especially if Trump loses the presidential race, could keep Rubio’s 2020 presidential ambitions very much alive.
Keeping his Senate seat, though, will force Rubio to find a solution to a thorny problem that vexed his presidential race: Foreign policy and national security should be Rubio’s strong suit, but GOP voters seem to strongly prefer Trump’s views, which turn off many of the moderate or independent voters Rubio may ultimately need.
Rubio’s road to reelection was never going to be easy, with a late start, costly media market, stubborn primary challengers, competitive Democratic opponents, suggestions of political opportunism, blatant distaste for the Senate, and a surging Democratic presidential nominee who’s made national security central to her campaign.
Trump, who routinely disparages Latinos and other minorities who make up significant swaths of Florida’s voting population, seems certain to make things even harder for Rubio. The Floridian clearly gets that: In his Wednesday announcement, Rubio went out of his way to stress that he’s ready to break with his party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
“It is no secret that I have significant disagreements with Donald Trump,” Rubio said, adding that his positions are either unknown or “not just offensive but unacceptable.” But if Trump’s elected, Rubio argued, he will need senators to push him in the right direction — and push back.
“I’ve proven a willingness to do both,” Rubio said.
That will be easier said than done. Rubio, like other Senate Republicans, has struggled with the choice of either embracing a presumptive presidential nominee whose inconsistent policies and controversial statements are often at odds with the GOP’s national security nucleus, or keeping him at a distance, risking both his Twitter-fueled ire as well as party unity as the GOP looks to defeat Hillary Clinton’s well-oiled campaign machinery.
In March, amid continued violence at Trump rallies, Rubio said he was still committed to supporting the eventual Republican nominee, “but it’s getting harder every day.”
After returning to the Senate in May, Rubio reiterated that pledge of support but flatly ruled out joining a Trump ticket. “I believe that he would be best served by someone who more fully embraces the things he stands for. And that’s certainly not me,” Rubio said.
Days later he suggested he’d speak for Trump at the Republican convention in Cleveland in July, saying, “I want to be helpful.” But he almost immediately walked it back, arguing that he meant he’d be willing to speak for the party’s values, not on behalf of the candidate himself.
For now, many Republican senators are clearly relieved by Rubio’s decision to fight for his seat.
“I think we’ve all had a conversation with him to encourage him to run,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, who himself is up for reelection in North Carolina, told Foreign Policy. Rubio serves on his committee as well as on the Senate’s Foreign Relations panel. “I would love to see him back, because it takes a couple years just for somebody to get up to speed.”
Burr suggested Floridians voting for their senator this fall would be more attracted to Rubio’s national security and foreign-policy experience than they were in the presidential contest last spring. “I don’t think the presidential race is playing out based upon policy,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, (R-Ariz.) defended Rubio against accusations from the Clinton campaign and others of using the Orlando tragedy as political opportunism. Flake told FP that Orlando and broader terror risks were a “good reason” for entering the Senate race.
In his announcement, Rubio indicated he’s going to be playing offense against both Trump and Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee and former secretary of state.
On a range of urgent issues facing the next president, particularly the potential for terrorist attacks abroad or on U.S. soil, Rubio said American voters can expect “backward or uncertain responses from either Clinton or Trump.”
If Clinton wins the White House, “we would have four more years of the same failed foreign policy that has allowed radical Islam to spread and terrorists to be released from Guantánamo.”
Former Republican President George W. Bush, who believed the U.S. military prison in Cuba should be closed, released far more detainees during his administration than President Barack Obama, with far fewer security measures. The Obama administration requires a handful of national security agencies to unanimously approve the transfer of a detainee. Obama also came under fire in the wake of Orlando for his continued refusal to use the term “radical Islam” — even Clinton seemed to concede the point — but the president said the debate over the wording was merely a political distraction.
Rubio’s generous use of the rhetorical red meat thrown out often during the Republican presidential campaign, from the “disastrous Iran nuclear deal” to a “declining military,” forecasts a Senate campaign focused on national security. But it could also set up showdowns with Trump, who has renewed his calls to ban Muslim immigrants, cozied up to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, and slammed Bush for failing to prevent 9/11 and launching the ill-fated Iraq war. Trump has also argued that both Bush and Obama pursued policies of regime change and nation-building that have unleashed chaos throughout the Middle East.
There are also stark tonal differences between the two men. Rubio is clearly no fan of Obama, but he has never gone so far as Trump, who has repeatedly insinuated that the president was a foreign-born Muslim. Whereas Rubio flew with the president to Orlando and shook his hand on the tarmac, Trump went even further in his attacks in the wake of the Florida tragedy, asserting — despite absolutely no evidence to bolster the case — that Obama was somehow complicit in the massacre.
It’s unclear as of yet whether Florida voters will be more receptive to either candidate’s national security strategy in November.
Rubio is expected to face Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Democrat who’s been backed for months by his party’s money and both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
“Patrick has an extensive record on national security, and I’m sure we’ll find plenty of opportunity to draw a contrast,” Murphy communications director Joshua Karp told FP on Wednesday.
According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, Rubio leads Murphy 47 points to 40, while Murphy leads five other Republican challengers in a potential matchup.
Photo credit: JOE RAEDLE/Staff