The Biggest Question In Florida Politics: ‘Is Rubio Running Or What?’

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Congressman David Jolly has been campaigning for nearly a year for Florida’s open U.S. Senate seat. On the sidelines of a recent Republican candidates forum here, he adroitly fielded questions about his House record, about the challenges of running alongside Donald Trump, and about his proposals to reform the political fundraising system.

But Jolly concluded the interview with a query of his own: “You tell me. Is Rubio running or what?”

From Key West to Pensacola and on to Washington, major political players are dying to know: Will Marco Rubio, the former Republican presidential candidate and current member of the U.S. Senate, renege on his pledge not to seek reelection under pressure to help save the Senate for the GOP?

The calls for a Rubio rescue have been loudest in Washington — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is openly urging Rubio to reconsider — driven by anxiety about the unsettled Republican field of five credible contenders that has emerged ahead of the Aug. 30 primary. If McConnell wants to retain his majority in 2017, keeping Rubio’s seat in GOP hands is crucial.

National Republicans see Rubio, with his high profile and proven fundraising ability, as their best chance to fend off Democrats in the year of Trump in a state where 1 in 5 voting-age residents is Hispanic. Rubio must make a decision by June 24, the deadline for declaring candidacy in the state.

Trump himself weighed in last month: “Important to keep the MAJORITY,” he tweeted. “Run Marco!”

Rubio has long denied interest in reentering the race, pointing to his friendship with a current candidate, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. But the incumbent’s position softened recently when he told CNN he would “maybe” reconsider should Lopez-Cantera bow out.

Rubio declined to elaborate Friday at a Miami news conference, called to highlight his fight for Zika funding: “Nothing’s changed from what I’ve said in the past. I’m enjoying my work in the Senate, I’m honored to be able to do it, and I’ll continue to do it through the end of my term. But as far as beyond that, nothing’s changed.”

Yet speculation about Rubio’s intentions is rampant in Florida political circles.

“Everyone’s still waiting to see if Marco’s going to get in,” said Carl Domino, a Republican former state representative now running for Congress. “None of [the GOP candidates] has good name recognition; none of them are raising a ton of money. … Marco’s very popular. He’s Hispanic. He can raise the money. Marco’s the easiest answer.”

The current GOP field comprises Lopez-Cantera, Jolly, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and two wealthy, self-funding businessmen: real estate developer Carlos Beruff and defense contractor Todd Wilcox. They are fighting to take on the winner of a Democratic primary that’s been chock-full of drama itself, pitting Rep. Patrick Murphy, who is running with national party backing and has already raised $7.7 million, against Rep. Alan Grayson, a liberal firebrand.

Public polling has confirmed it’s a muddled race. An early-May Quinnipiac University poll showed each of the five Republicans statistically tied with or losing to Murphy, and none could open a statistically significant lead against Grayson.

Statewide name recognition does not come cheap in Florida. Consultants there point to the roughly $75 million that businessman Rick Scott, R, spent in 2010 to get elected governor — a figure, they say, that neither Beruff nor Wilcox will be able to come close to matching. DeSantis has outraised Jolly and Lopez-Cantera but still has only half of what Murphy has thus far collected.

Should Rubio agree to seek reelection, his near-universal name recognition would give him a clear advantage, but his path to a second term would remain thorny.

Only Jolly has said he would exit the race were Rubio to enter. “He is one of the stars of our party, and I would be proud to support Marco if he decided to run,” he said. The other candidates have committed to staying in the race or declined to address the question. Most observers assume Lopez-Cantera would bow out were Rubio to run.

In terms of fundraising, Rubio would start nearly from scratch. His presidential campaign account had more than $3 million when he withdrew but also $2 million in unpaid loans. He would be faced with asking donors to contribute in a state where voters roundly rejected him in March, when he garnered only 27 percent of the presidential primary vote and lost every county to Trump except his own.

That came after a bruising campaign in which his absentee voting record in the Senate became a liability – a record, at one debate, he defended by pointing out he had pledged not to run again. The May Quinnipiac poll found Rubio’s Senate approval rating underwater, with 49 percent of registered voters disapproving of his job performance to 42 percent approving.

Rubio would have to mend fences with party regulars who say they’ve gone six years without having any meaningful interaction with him. And he can expect to do battle with the tea party activists who propelled him into office in 2010 but were alienated by his pursuit of an overhaul of immigration law and his shifts on other issues.

“He pissed us all off, and he’s never going to get us back,” said Marion Frank, an activist in Palm Beach County who is backing DeSantis. “He will have the fight of his life, and it won’t be worth it.”

Others point to more personal reasons if Rubio demurs: his need to shore up his personal finances through private-sector work, his desire to spend more time with his young family in Miami and, simply, his unwillingness to break his word.

But there has been a notable shift in Rubio’s tone when describing his Senate work. Since returning from the presidential trail, he has been an outspoken advocate for federal funding to combat the Zika virus and has exercised his influence on foreign-policy matters. In the CNN interview, he said his frustration with the Senate was rooted in serving under a Democratic majority for his first four years. “I think it’s different now, and we’re starting to see movement,” he said.

Jolly claims to know the endgame. “Of course Marco Rubio’s running,” he said. “There are only two reasons Rubio would not endorse his best friend, the lieutenant governor — because either he’s running or he doesn’t want to get behind the guy polling at 3 percent. I think it’s the former.”

The speculation has put Lopez-Cantera in a particularly awkward position. He has been friends with Rubio since their days as young Republican activists in Miami in the mid-’90s, and the two served together in the Florida House. Lopez-Cantera rose to become the Republican floor leader, and Scott appointed him lieutenant governor in 2014.

Last week at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Key Largo, the similarities between the two men’s speaking style, demeanor and sharp skepticism of government were hard to miss. “Let’s face it,” Lopez-Cantera told the crowd. “You know how to turn one dollar into two. Government usually takes a dollar and turns it into 50 cents.”

In an interview afterward, Lopez-Cantera declined to say whether Rubio had personally reassured him that he wouldn’t enter the race. But he confirmed that Rubio did a fundraising call for him on May 27, shortly after the senator taped the CNN interview, and Rubio is set to appear at a Miami fundraiser for Lopez-Cantera on June 24, the day of the filing deadline.

“Marco has been very generous with his time, with his counsel, with his support, and I’m grateful to have it,” Lopez-Cantera said. “I look forward to continuing down this path and winning this seat in November and keeping it in Republican hands.”

Rick Wilson, a Florida political strategist who has ties to Rubio and is now working for a super PAC affiliated with Lopez-Cantera, said Rubio’s pledge not to run should be trusted: “When the guy says he’s going to do something, he does it.”

DeSantis, a House member since 2010, has demonstrated a talent for rallying the activist base and has won support from key outside funders, including the Club for Growth and a cadre of GOP mega-donors. At the end of March, he had raised the most money of the five GOP candidates, with more than $3.2 million in his campaign account and an associated super PAC raising an additional $1.1 million.

At the Boca Raton forum, DeSantis threw red meat to the crowd, starting with the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and landing on the healthy state of a D.C. economy that produces “nothing of substance,” he said: “It’s all because of the growth of government. Washington booms while the rest of the economy is stuck in neutral.”

Beruff made a late entry into the race in February and immediately garnered comparisons to Trump – not only for his line of work and deep pockets but also for his blunt talk and support for many Trump policies.

In an interview, he gently rejected the comparisons but credited Trump with having “absolutely galvanized the frustration this country has with politics as usual in Washington.” He’s put his own twist on Trump’s policies: Where Trump has floated a ban on Muslims entering the country, for instance, Beruff favors a ban on those coming from Middle Eastern countries.

“You name me one people or one religion – I haven’t found one yet — that will train an 8-, 9-, 10- or 11-year-old child to strap a vest on themselves and blow themselves up,” he said after a central-Florida fundraiser last week, not far from one of his residential developments. “I get the fact that the majority — the vast, vast majority — are nice people who are peace-loving people, but that small element, we have to deal with it.”

Beruff has already spent more than $3 million on ads to introduce himself to Florida voters, and a late-May poll conducted by his campaign showed the developer with 17 percent support among likely primary voters. Jolly, who is well known in the Tampa media market two years after winning one of the most expensive House races ever, registered at 16 percent, with the others all in single digits.

Wilcox is taking a decidedly un-Trumpian approach to his outsider bid, highlighting his military record — and his relatively clean business slate. “I’ve never defaulted on a loan, I’ve never sued anyone, and I’ve never been sued,” he boasted at the forum.

In an interview beforehand, Wilcox acknowledged being outspent by Beruff but said he is ready to pounce when the time is right. And he suggested that it isn’t Beruff, who has long-standing ties to establishment Florida politicians, who can properly lay claim to the outsider mantle. “The symptom is Washington’s dysfunction,” he said, in a line he would later repeat to the crowd. “The actual disease is career politicians.”

After the forum, Palm Beach County GOP Chair Michael Barnett pondered which candidate might break out from the pack. He said he doubts Rubio will end up running, and that is all right with him.

“Nobody is as well known as Marco Rubio,” he said. “But once we have a nominee, I don’t sense that will be an issue anymore.”

(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Mike DeBonis – Photo by: Andrew HarrerBloomberg

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