Marco Rubio's sudden surge: Why the GOP may be stuck with him in '16

As the Republican establishment searches for its "anti-Hillary," here's why Jeb and Walker should both be worrying

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 13, 2015 4:32PM (EDT)

Marco Rubio                               (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
Marco Rubio (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

Recognizing his obvious presidential timber after he boldly led Senate Republicans to hold hands and jump over a cliff in his very first weeks in the Senate, the Arkansas GOP introduced a bill this week which would change existing law to allow Tom Cotton to run for the office in 2020. One might ask why they would wait so long for his leadership  --- and for all we know, the draft Cotton movement is already afoot for 2016 --- but perhaps they recognize that it might be better if he has more than a couple of months of experience before he takes the reins of the most powerful government on earth. (It's possible that they also recognize it's going to take a while before people have forgotten that he boldly led Senate Republicans over a cliff in his very first weeks in office ...)

But the urge for a fresh face among GOP strategists is palpable. After all, if they plan to run against Hillary the ancient mariner who's been around politics since we were all sending notes to each other via post office, they have to have someone besides Jeb Bush who, if you squint your eyes when he comes on TV, looks and sounds an awful like Poppy, who's been around since they were all sending notes via pony express. There's a groundhog day aspect to the upcoming presidential race for a lot of reasons and while it may seem that Hillary Clinton is the one stands to lose the most from that, it remains a fact that she would be the first woman nominee of a major political party in our country's history and you just don't get any fresher than that. The Republicans, on the other hand, have a major problem with virtually every member of the US electorate except older white conservatives.

There are a lot of old white conservatives, to be sure. But not enough to win a national election. As I wrote in this piece from a couple of weeks ago, Republican pollsters and strategists have crunched the numbers and they realize that in order to win they have to do substantially better with Hispanics and other minorities than George W. Bush did in 2000. It's possible that some of them believe that means Jeb is a logical choice to re-capture some of that Bush magic (although anyone who's seen him on the stump would be hard pressed to believe that "magic" is a word that springs to mind.) Moreover, while he can certainly deploy his Mexican American wife and his children to speak for his openmindedness about immigration, the fact that the kids are grown and in office themselves will only show him to be just another older white, male politician. Jeb isn't young. He is eligible for Social Security this year. Jeb Bush as the voice of the new generation of Republicans doesn't exactly have the ring of authenticity to it.

And that brings us to Marco Rubio. The beltway wags have dubbed this current period in the presidential cycle the "donor primary" with the GOP candidates all rushing to kiss the rings of the big money boyz in the party. It's widely assumed that Jeb Bush is their guy. (After all, brother Dubya may have screwed up the world in flamboyant fashion but he damned sure got those tax cuts for the rich passed first thing.) And for reasons that continue to be obscure, a lot of pundits think Scott Walker is a formidable force despite the fact that he can hardly go a day without saying something that further proves he's anything but. And yet, for all the talk about these two being the billionaires' favorite toys, it was Rubio who made the big splash at the Koch Summit a few weeks back.

Ken Vogel at Politico reported at the time:

The Koch brothers’ conservative network is still debating whether it will spend any of its massive $889 million budget in the Republican presidential primaries, but the prospect of choosing a GOP nominee loomed over the network’s just-concluded donor conference in the California desert. In an informal straw poll of some conference donors, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida came out ahead of four other would-be GOP presidential candidates who had been invited, according to an attendee familiar with the results. The poll was conducted by Frank Luntz, a veteran GOP pollster, during a break-out session of the conference, which wrapped up Tuesday after a long weekend of presentations and discussions at the Ritz-Carlton in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

The Koch network isn't the only game in town, of course, but it's certainly the biggest player. And they liked the Senator from Florida very much. Why? Because they want to win. And Rubio, as rough around the edges as he certainly is, is the one hopeful they can conceivably contrast with an older, white woman as a "first" of equal importance. He's young, he's Hispanic and he's good looking. He's the anti-Hillary whom they believe might be able to siphon off enough of those Latinos who are going to be necessary to get the GOP over the line.

Up until now the beltway handicappers have barely mentioned him. But he's starting to make his move. National Review reports that the buzz is starting:

Jeb Bush’s announcement in December launched both a fundraising juggernaut and an aggressive hiring spree, and Scott Walker’s speech in Iowa the following month lifted Walker to the top of national polls. But a little more than a month later, says the operative, “The Jeb boom is over and people are having second thoughts about Walker.”

The beneficiary in terms of buzz is Marco Rubio, who now has many of the party’s top donors looking at him in a way they weren’t even a month ago. Though Rubio hasn’t made as much noise as his competitors as the 2016 campaign has gotten underway in earnest, his knowledgeable presentations and obvious political talent are nonetheless turning heads or, at least, enough of them. Rubio hasn’t made a big splash, neither building a “shock and awe” campaign like Bush nor delivering a marquee speech like Walker (who afterward seemed almost to be caught off guard by his rapid ascent). Instead, Rubio appears to be gambling on the idea that, in what is sure to be a long primary with a crowded field, a slow-and-steady approach will prevail.

The piece goes on to note that Florida billionaire Norman Braman announced that he is prepared to give Rubio substantial backing and that at the "American Enterprise Institute’s annual donor retreat in Sea Island, Ga., one attendee says Rubio got rave reviews from a crowd that included several billionaires." He is likewise making a good impression on the intellectual wing of the party (which says more about the intellectual wing of the party than it does about him.)

It's a long way to the Republican convention next year and speculation about the outcome is little more than a parlor game at this point. But Rubio is the potential nominee who makes the most sense on paper and it seems that a number of billionaires are willing to wager some of what amounts to tip money for them (and a vast fortune for the rest of us) on his campaign. If he can figure out the difference between ISIS and Iran before he has to debate someone who knows the answer, he could be the one they are waiting for.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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