When Marco Rubio first got elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010, very few people would have thought that the Tea Party firebrand, who had won an upset primary victory over Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist, would emerge in late 2015 as the chosen candidate of the Republican Party’s establishment. However, with the first primaries and caucuses only a few months away, this increasingly looks to be the case. The combination of the unexpected, but pronounced collapse of Jeb Bush’s candidacy, the emergence of Donald Trump and Ben Carson as strong, if quirky and erratic, candidates with no real ties to GOP leadership and the tenacity of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who is presenting himself as to the right of Mr. Rubio, has left the Florida Senator in this position.
For Mr. Rubio to win support from the establishment wing of the party, a constituency that Mr. Bush should have dominated, all he had to do was present himself politely and with a smile while not having to waver from his right wing views.
At first glance the distance from Tea Party darling to favored candidate of the Republican establishment looks like a long way, but the ease with which Mr. Rubio has made this transition reveals quite a bit about what is really happening in today’s Republican Party. First, it bears repeating that there is no moderate wing of the party anymore. Today, labels within the GOP like moderate and conservative refer less to questions of ideology and more to questions of temperament. People like Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bush who seem less angry and more grounded in reality than, for example Dr. Carson or Mr. Cruz, are viewed as moderates, but their records tell a different story. Mr. Bush governed as a conservative in Florida and Mr. Rubio has generally, with the possible exception of immigration related issues, placed himself on the far right of either the Florida legislature or the U.S. Senate. Thus, for Mr. Rubio to win support from the establishment wing of the party, a constituency that Mr. Bush should have dominated, all he had to do was present himself politely and with a smile while not having to waver from his right wing views. That was the political recipe that the last two conservative Republicans to win the White House, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, employed.
Currently, the leaders of the Republican primary pack are Dr. Carson and Mr. Trump, but if those two inexperienced politicians falter, the race may come down to Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio, who are currently the next leading candidates in most polls. This would be a fascinating development for several reasons. First, if Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio are the last two elected officials standing in the Republican primary it will be a reflection of the collapse of Mr. Bush’s campaign. A strong Jeb Bush candidacy would have preempted Mr. Rubio (like Mr. Bush a conservative Floridian) from emerging as a strong candidate. Similarly, the Bush family’s Texas network should have been able to damage Mr. Cruz.
The prospect of two Republicans who are both under 50 and who are children of Cuban immigrants battling it out would be an excellent development for those Republicans who believe that the party needs more Latino support to be competitive at the national level.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell