Sen. Rubio pulled back into Senate race by ‘mediocre’ presidential candidacies

Ending weeks of political speculation, Marco Rubio announced Wednesday he has changed his mind and will run for re-election to the Senate, reversing his pledge to return to private life after his presidential campaign collapsed three months ago.

His decision could give Republicans an edge in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country — and keep Rubio in the public eye ahead of the next presidential election in 2020.

Rubio cited a sense of duty to try to remain in Congress under either President Donald Trump or President Hillary Clinton, two candidates he considers mediocre.

“No matter who’s elected president, there’s reason to worry. If it’s Hillary Clinton, you know we’re going to have four more years of the same failed economic policies, four more years of the same failed foreign policy,” he told the Miami Herald. “The prospect of a Trump presidency is also worrisome to me in many ways.”

Rubio has said he’ll vote for Trump. If Trump wins, Rubio said that as a senator he would “encourage him in the right direction, but if it’s necessary, stand up to him.”

“It’s no secret that I have significant disagreements with Donald,” he said. “And his positions on many key issues are unknown, and many of the statements — especially about women and minorities — are statements that I find not just offensive but unacceptable.”

National Republicans fearful of losing Senate control to Democrats mounted a campaign to keep Rubio on the ballot for Florida’s swing seat. He consented just two days before Friday’s qualifying deadline, pointing to the Senate’s “check and balance on the excesses of the president.”

He made no commitments about his future ambitions, declining to say if he’d serve a full, six-year term — or run again for president in 2020 or 2024.

“What I’m done making is unequivocal statements about anything at this point,” he said. “I don’t even know who the next president’s going to be. But I will say this to you: If I wanted to run for president in 2020, running for re-election in 2016 was probably not the best choice to make politically.”

Rubio’s decision carries some political risk. He has only a couple of months to organize a campaign and pitch himself again to voters, some of whom start casting ballots in July for the Aug. 30 primary. If he wins, he could substantially boost his chance to become a future presidential candidate. If he loses, he undermines his political career with two major failures in a single year, perhaps forcing him to abandon his White House ambitions.

“It’s never been a goal of mine to lose two elections in a year,” Rubio said. “It’s going to be a tough race. I have no illusions about that.”

Rubio’s announcement quickly upended the GOP primary contest to replace him: Two of his would-be rivals, Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and Rep. Ron DeSantis, left the race, with DeSantis choosing to run for re-election instead. Two other competitors, Manatee County developer Carlos Beruff and Orlando defense contractorTodd Wilcox, remain — though Rubio became the instant front-runner.

Beruff and Wilcox, both independently wealthy, say they’re prepared to challenge Rubio in the primary.

Beruff has indicated he’s prepared to tar Rubio, a tea-party favorite when he was first elected to office in 2010, as part of the Republican establishment many voters now disdain.

“Career politicians like Marco Rubio worry more about keeping the job than doing the job, and are constantly looking for their next political promotion,” Beruff said in a statement Wednesday.

Outside of Beruff and Wilcox, however, Florida GOP leaders and down-ballot candidates were giddy at the prospect of having Rubio back on the ticket. They see Rubio, the only Senate candidate who has run statewide, as a buffer to Trump in Florida. The presumptive GOP nominee has seen his popularity fall in recent polls, and party leaders worry he could be a drag on state and local races.

Clinton leads Trump 47-39 percent in Florida, a Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday showed — her largest lead since the pollster starting asking voters about a Clinton-Trump matchup in 2015.

With his widespread name recognition and broad donor network, Rubio would pose a stiffer challenge to the leading Democratic candidates, Reps. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter and Alan Grayson of Orlando, who had benefited from the lack of a GOP leader. Rubio’s announcement came within hours of the release of a new Quinnipiac University poll showing he’s the only Republican with a shot at defeating Grayson or Murphy in November, when the electorate will likely skew Democratic.

Democrats accused Rubio of playing politics with the crucial seat.

“Marco Rubio abandoned his constituents, and now he’s treating them like a consolation prize,” Murphy said in a statement. “From missing the most votes of any Florida senator in nearly 50 years, to seeking to ban abortion even in cases of rape or incest, to repeatedly voting against closing the terrorist gun loophole, Rubio is proving he is only out for himself.”

Grayson’s campaign manager, Mike Ceraso, in a statement called Rubio “No Show Marco,” a reference to the senator’s many missed votes while on the campaign trail.

Rubio had been adamant after his presidential bid failed he would not return to Washington, which he has disdained as dysfunctional and ineffective. The 45-year-old Rubio seemed intent on a spending a few lucrative years in the private sector.

Yet his reversal is hardly surprising.

Rubio went back to Capitol Hill after his crushing March 15 loss in the Florida primary with renewed interest in the job — and an aggressive public-relations campaign to highlight it. He granted numerous interviews about his work. He traveled extensively in Florida, focusing on issues such as Everglades restoration and Zika virus prevention. And he repeated over and over again, often unprompted, that he didn’t “hate” the Senate.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee took it all as a sign that Rubio might be open to their overtures.

In interviews, Rubio started sounding increasingly like a man sitting out the race chiefly because his friend Lopez-Cantera was in it — not because he wasn’t interested. “Maybe,” he told CNN in May.

Then, after last week’s massacre of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub, Rubio told a radio talk-show host he’d been given “pause” to reconsider his Senate role. He met with Lopez-Cantera, who gave Rubio the go-ahead to run. “Had that conversation not happened,” Rubio said of his talk with Lopez-Cantera, “this conversation we’re having now would have never happened.”

On Monday, Rubio voted against a measure to block gun sales to suspected terrorists.

Democrats charged Rubio with using the mass shooting to neatly justify his political plans. Rubio, who was careful not to mention the tragedy in the Herald interview, said Orlando made him think, “Where is it that you want to be in life, and what do you find rewarding?”

Though Rubio seemed to deliberately position himself so he could seek re-election, he and his friends contend the move was never calculated and the timing wasn’t opportunistic. Until just a couple of weeks ago, they say, Rubio had no intention to return to the Senate. Several friends said that when Rubio started reconsidering, they advised him to stick to his original plan.

“He’s got four kids under the age of 16,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who served with Rubio in the Florida House of Representatives. “Politically it’s probably the riskiest thing he could do. ... It’s no shoo-in for Marco.”

He made up his mind with his family over Father’s Day weekend, Rubio said. The senator, who’s always had a knack for building political suspense, extended the drama by taking until Wednesday to make an announcement. His backers had said they expected a decision by Sunday. Then Monday. Then Tuesday.

The prolonged intrigue set off a flurry of political dominoes among Florida Republicans.

Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores left the Senate race Friday and will instead seek re-election to his St. Petersburg congressional seat, challenging former Gov. Charlie Crist in a redrawn district that now favors Democrats. DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach will run again in Florida’s Sixth Congressional District. Lopez-Cantera of Miami will remain lieutenant governor.

“He’s doing this for the greater good,” Lopez-Cantera said Wednesday. “Before today, I was our best chance to keep the seat Republican. But if Marco runs, then he’s our best chance. That’s more important.”

“I’m very encouraged by the news Sen. Rubio will seek re-election,” said state Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who is hoping to become House speaker from 2018-2020. “His decision will have important ramifications on the election and, more importantly, on our ability to appoint a Supreme Court justice who will hold to our Constitution.”

Political groups plan to spend tens of millions of dollars in the Florida Senate race. Rubio will have to start fundraising from scratch. As of the end of May, he had only about $24,000 left over in his presidential campaign account and was about $1.9 million in debt.

But major Republican groups are also expected to step in to help Rubio. That’s part of the promise party leaders made in courting him for re-election.

“There is literally one person in America who has the ability to dramatically increase the chances of Republicans keeping the majority — Marco Rubio,” said Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund and a former McConnell chief of staff. “If Marco’s in for Florida, we’re in for Florida; it’s just that simple.”

Herald/Times reporters Michael Auslen, Kristen Clark and Jeremy Wallace and Tampa Bay Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary contributed.