September 7, 2009
The Florida GOP has a new star
JOHN J. MILLER
Florida governor Charlie Crist is running for the Senate, and he isn’t supposed to lose — let alone lose in the Republican primary. He enjoys a high approval rating, has a history of success among voters, and raises campaign cash with the intensity of a Category 5 hurricane. His main opponent in the GOP primary is Marco Rubio, a 38-year-old Miami native who quotes Snoop Dogg lyrics on his Twitter account. On paper, it looks like a mismatch between an unbeatable juggernaut and a doomed also-ran.
Yet Crist may be vulnerable: He warmly embraced President Obama’s stimulus spending and is one of the most liberal politicians in the Republican firmament. Rubio is among the brightest young stars on the right. Their contest could become the sleeper race of 2010.
That would spoil the well-laid plans of many in the GOP establishment. They want the Senate race in Florida to be over before it starts. In May, when Crist declared that he would forgo a second term as governor and aim for the seat of retiring senator Mel Martinez, the National Republican Senatorial Committee waited all of 14 minutes to endorse him. “I never thought I’d see the day when a conservative was the insurgent in a Republican primary,” says Rubio. Yet this is precisely what he has become: a heavy underdog who must learn to wage the political version of asymmetric warfare. A recent Mason-Dixon poll gave Crist a big lead over his rival, 51 percent to 23 percent.
The election remains a year away. For a primary, it’s late on the calendar: Aug. 24, 2010. That gives Rubio plenty of time to catch up. The details of the Mason-Dixon poll suggest that he’ll have a fighting chance. Among Republicans who are familiar with both candidates, Crist’s lead slips to statistical insignificance. It’s basically a dead heat. “I’m not a kamikaze,” says Rubio. “At this time next year, you’re going to be analyzing a very different race.” For that prediction to come true, conservatives in Florida and around the country will have to turn Rubio’s candidacy into a cause.
Marco Antonio Rubio was born in 1971, the son of Cuban exiles. His father worked late nights as a bartender. His mother was a hotel maid and a stock clerk at Kmart. They lived in Miami, moved to Las Vegas for a few years, and finally returned to Florida. “I gained an interest in politics and history from my uncle, who would read books and newspapers out loud to us,” says Rubio. As with many boys, sports were a priority. He played defensive back for his high-school football team. He says he has a recurring dream — a “nightmare,” he calls it — about a playoff game in 1987: “We should have won, but the referees called back a play, we missed a field goal, and our team lost.”
Rubio was talented enough to earn a scholarship to Tarkio College in Missouri. After a year, he left the gridiron and transferred to the University of Florida. Then came law school at the University of Miami. He remains an avid football fan and keeps fit playing in a competitive flag-football league. “Don’t disturb him during Miami Dolphins games,” warns a former colleague. “He doesn’t just watch them — he studies them.” Rubio’s devotion to the Dolphins is a family affair: His wife is a former team cheerleader. They have four children.
Early on, Rubio began to dabble in politics. He interned for Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and later coordinated the Dole-Kemp campaign in Miami-Dade County. “That was a tough assignment, but Marco was passionate,” says Al Cardenas, a former chair of the Florida GOP. “He had good people skills and helped the volunteers keep their spirits up. That’s when I first thought he might be going places.”
In 1998, at the age of 26, Rubio stepped into public life: He won a race to serve on the West Miami city commission. The next year, a spot opened in the state legislature. Rubio declared his candidacy in the special election and finished second in the Republican primary. This led to a runoff, and a lot of hustling: He walked neighborhoods, knocked on doors, and raised enough money to broadcast a few radio ads. In the end, he pulled off a minor upset, winning by 64 votes. It was the last time he faced a difficult race. The district was safe for Republicans, and voters sent him back to Tallahassee four times. Last year, term limits prevented him from running again.
As a young legislator, Rubio caught the eye of his elders. “He’s got all the tools,” says Jeb Bush, the former governor. “He’s charismatic and has the right principles.” Rubio compiled a conservative voting record and started to climb the GOP’s leadership ladder, eventually becoming speaker of the House. The capitol’s veterans occasionally mistook him for an aide: Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings once marched into his office, handed him a stack of papers, and asked him to make copies. At the time, Rubio was majority leader. “I did make the copies,” he says. For the most part, however, his youth was an asset. “I watched him grow up in the House,” says Lindsay Harrington, a former speaker pro tem. “He has an amazing ability to deliver a message — when he gives a speech, you can hear a pin drop.”
That’s what observers say about Rubio, over and over again: He’s a first-rate communicator. “He has a gift,” says Larry Cretul, the current House speaker. “People love listening to him.” He certainly has a flair for one-liners. Cap-and-trade legislation, he says, “will do nothing but make America one of the cleanest Third World economies.” He urges the GOP to avoid ethnic pandering, and dismisses concerns that opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor would hurt Republicans among Hispanics: “We don’t need more mariachi bands at the rallies.”
Thanks to YouTube, Rubio’s farewell address last year probably has been seen by more viewers than any other speech in the history of the Florida statehouse. That may sound like faint praise, and Rubio’s clip doesn’t compete with web sensations such as Susan Boyle or Obama Girl. But he’s gone about as viral as any state legislator can hope to go without setting his pants on fire. More recently, he has taken advantage of Twitter. He comments on everything from the state of his campaign to how long it takes his wife to get ready for a night out.
Behind the rhetoric and panache, there’s substance. When Rubio became speaker, he unveiled a plan to develop “100 innovative ideas for Florida’s future.” He and other officials traveled the state, holding “idea-raisers” with voters. The stated goal was to find ways to improve life in Florida without unduly increasing the size of government. The result was a conservative legislative agenda, released on the web and as a short book. Judging from the recommendations Rubio adopted, it would seem that everybody in Florida was an intern at the Heritage Foundation. Fifty-seven of the proposals were passed, many of them small-bore. The most ambitious was No. 96, which called for capping or eliminating the state property tax and replacing it with a revenue-neutral sales-tax hike. “We couldn’t get Crist or the state senators to go along with it — they didn’t want to be bold,” says Rubio. “That was probably my biggest disappointment as speaker. Florida could be in a much stronger position today.” In his bid for the Senate, tax reform remains his No. 1 talking point.
Rubio’s efforts on the campaign trail are starting to pay off. This summer, he has won lopsided victories in straw polls conducted by GOP executive committees. In June, Pasco County Republicans favored Rubio by a vote of 73 to 9. In July, Rubio trounced Crist in Lee County (60 to 11) and Highland County (75 to 1). Technically, these tallies are meaningless. Yet they express a growing disillusionment with Crist at the party’s core. The governor’s global-warming alarmism has unsettled conservatives for a long time. Then there’s his appointment of a liberal to the state supreme court, his approval of a state budget that raises cigarette taxes, and his hug of Obama at a political event in support of the president’s spending plans. On August 12, Republicans in Palm Beach County held a vote to censure Crist. The measure failed, but only because the final vote was a tie. In this environment, Rubio begins to look like an attractive alternative.
The Republican case for Crist is simple and pragmatic: He’ll win the seat, hands down, at a time when the GOP can’t afford to take any chances. The number of Republicans in the U.S. Senate has dwindled to 40. Six incumbents have announced plans to retire, most of them in states where Democrats can be expected to compete. It’s possible that Republicans will make gains next year in congressional races and the states but actually lose ground in the Senate. The fear is that Rubio will become a slightly more successful version of Pat Toomey, the former Pennsylvania congressman who electrified conservatives and nearly stole the GOP nomination from then-Republican Arlen Specter in 2004. Many think that giving the party’s nod to Crist at least would remove a question mark from the political map. Rubio has a ready retort: “I can’t beat Kendrick Meek?” he asks, in reference to the left-wing congressman who is the likely Democratic nominee.
Rubio has heard suggestions, in public and private, that he should seek a different office. He might run for state attorney general, for instance. Or he could be tapped as a candidate for lieutenant governor. Another opportunity to run for the Senate will present itself in 2012, when the current term of Democratic senator Bill Nelson expires. But Rubio says he won’t budge: “I’m in this race to win. Many of the things that make America unique are threatened by politicians in Washington, D.C. We’re going to make irreversible decisions over the next four to six years. I want to be a part of correcting the course.”
Several factors may work to Rubio’s advantage. The primary is closed, which means that only registered Republicans can participate. Turnout probably will be low, which increases the importance of conservative activists. Rubio also has started to attract national attention. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee have endorsed him. Interestingly, Jeb Bush has remained quiet, fueling speculation that he might back Rubio if the race is close next summer. His son, Jeb Bush Jr., is a confirmed Rubio supporter. That Rubio is of Cuban ancestry doesn’t hurt, either. “Finding Latino stars in the Republican party is a big deal,” says Mike Murphy, a GOP political consultant and Rubio donor. “I don’t want to pigeonhole him — I’d like him if he was Scandinavian — but it’s a plus.”
The biggest challenge for Rubio will be money. In the second quarter of this year, Crist amassed $4.3 million. Rubio managed about one-twelfth of that amount: $340,000. This low figure has caused some to question his discipline. A shake-up of his campaign staff this summer raised doubts, too. Rubio clearly enjoys the performance aspect of politics. To win, however, he’ll also need to devote hours and hours of each day to the drudgery of fundraising: making cold calls, asking strangers for money, and receiving far more rejections than checks. This is the only way he’ll gain the resources to put ads on television, which is the only way to compete in a large state with as many media markets as Florida.
The good news is that Rubio doesn’t have to match Crist dollar for dollar. But he does need to hit a certain mark — enough to lift his name into the consciousness of most Florida Republicans. It can probably be done for about $5 million, give or take. Primaries are famously fluid, with lots of last-minute deciders. Candidates such as Rubio can close hard and fast in the final two or three weeks, but only if they spend a long time preparing to make the most of their opportunity.
Rubio may want to think of his task as a football game: He’ll need to play from behind, hanging in there against a stronger opponent for a full four quarters and hoping to put himself in position for a game-winning kick as time runs out. Then the nightmare will belong to Charlie Crist.