By K.C. McAlpin, October 5, 2015
Recent polls on the GOP presidential race show Donald Trump maintaining his lead, Ben Carson in second place, and Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina gaining ground in the wake of their debate performances, and Scott Walker’s departure from the contest.
So Sen. Rubio is still very much in the running with months still to go before any real voting takes place. However, were it not for one huge political mistake, Rubio might very easily be leading Donald Trump and the rest of the GOP field right now.
To understand what it was, we have to go back to early 2010. Rubio was an underdog challenger in Florida’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate running against the GOP establishment favorite, Gov. Charlie Crist.
Crist was viewed with deep suspicion by conservatives and Tea Party activists in Florida who were lining up behind Rubio. Among Crist’s several sins in their eyes was his enthusiastic support for President Obama’s stimulus spending bill. As a result, Rubio had pulled from 30 points behind Crist to being almost even in the polls. Rubio’s ascent was so dramatic The New York Times ran a story about him with the headline “First Senator from the Tea Party?”
But Rubio had a problem. As Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, he had sidelined several bills aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. Those actions raised fears among some influential Tea Party and grassroots activists that he would cast his lot with pro-amnesty Senate Republicans if he got to Washington.
Aware of these concerns, Rubio agreed to meet privately with a group of Tea Party and immigration reform activists in West Palm Beach. There, in a face-to-face meeting, Rubio made a pledge that he would never, under any circumstances, support giving legal status (amnesty) to illegal immigrants. Satisfied by his promise, the activists went all out to support Rubio’s campaign. In April, facing a continuing slide in the polls, Crist abruptly dropped out of the GOP race and announced he would run as an Independent. It was no use. In November, Rubio defeated both Crist and Democrat Kevin Meeks.
But Tea Party leaders began feeling uneasy again when Rubio started announcing his Capitol Hill staff. They were drawn largely from the ranks of the neoconservative Washington establishment. Chief among them was Rubio’s new chief of staff, Cesar Conda, a naturalized Philippine immigrant, and one-time legislative director for Michigan Republican Senator Spencer Abraham. Abraham was infamous among immigration reform activists for fighting his own party’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
The Tea Party’s worst fears were realized in January, 2013, when news broke that Rubio had joined the “Gang of Eight,” consisting of four Republican senators and four Democratic senators led by Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer (NY), who were drafting “comprehensive” immigration reform legislation including a blanket amnesty and path to citizenship for tens of millions of illegal aliens.
It was a complete betrayal of the solemn pledge Rubio had made when he ran for office, and grassroots leaders in Florida were livid. Had he run for reelection in 2016, they were going to confront him with it and make it an issue in the campaign.
With Rubio and the bi-partisan Gang of Eight’s support, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rammed the 1,200-page immigration bill through the Democrat controlled Senate. But it stalled in the face of determined opposition in the Republican controlled House.
Fast forward to 2015. Knowing he would face a tough race for reelection, and sensing a rare political opportunity, Rubio decides to throw his hat into the ring for the 2106 GOP presidential nomination.
Although starting without much support beyond his Florida base, Rubio performed well in the first two Republican presidential debates and climbed ahead of better-known rivals like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker to number four or five in the polls. That’s not too surprising. Rubio is young, handsome, well-informed, articulate, and Hispanic … all desirable and attractive qualities in a potential GOP nominee.
But his rise in the polls has brought him the attention of front-runner Donald Trump, who never mentions Rubio without denouncing him for supporting the Gang of Eight’s amnesty bill.
Rubio has done what he can to defuse the attacks, namely by proposing a series of enlightened and badly needed immigration control measures, and dispatching Conda to return to private life and serve as a mere ‘adviser’ to Rubio’s super PAC.
It it is still very early in the GOP presidential primary campaign, and Rubio may yet persuade Republican voters to give him a second chance on immigration and succeed in winning the nomination. But whatever lies ahead, you can be sure that Marco Rubio looks back from time to time, and imagines where he could be in the polls today if he had just kept his word on amnesty.