Politics & Government

Rubio says yes to another Senate run after all

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio addresses the crowd at a public town hall meeting on economic policy at Marine Concepts in Sarasota, south Manatee County.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio addresses the crowd at a public town hall meeting on economic policy at Marine Concepts in Sarasota, south Manatee County. Bradenton Herald file

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

Rubio cited a sense of duty to try to remain in office under either President Donald Trump or President Hillary Clinton — two candidates he considers subpar.

“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 worriesome to me in many ways. It’s no secret that I have significant disagreements with Donald.”

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 state candidate-qualifying deadline.

“I think that the point that really drove me to change my mind is that as we enter this kind of new chapter in our history here is, there’s another role the Senate plays that I think can be really important in the years to come,” Rubio said. “And that’s the power given to it in the Constitution to act as a check and balance on the excess of the president. It’s even more important given the fact that control of the Senate could very well come down to what happens in the Florida race.”

Rubio’s announcement could quickly upend the GOP primary contest to replace him: Two would-be rivals, Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, are expected to drop out of the race. (DeSantis could run for the House again.) Two other competitors, Sarasota developer Carlos Beruff and Orlando defense contractor Todd Wilcox, remain — though Rubio becomes the instant front-runner.

A Rubio nomination would pose a stiffer challenge to the leading Democratic candidates, U.S. Reps. Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson, who so far had benefited from the lack of a GOP leader.

Rubio’s decision comes with substantial political risk, which he acknowledged himself. He has only a couple of months to pitch himself again to voters, some of whom start casting ballots in July for the Aug. 30 primary. If he succeeds and wins, he may 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.

Rubio had been adamant after his presidential bid failed this year that he would not return to Washington, which he has disdained as dysfunctional and ineffective. But he went back to Capitol Hill after his crushing loss in the March 15 Florida primary with renewed interest in the job, focusing on state-centric issues such as Everglades restoration and Zika prevention (he redid his Senate office website and turned the “O” in “Marco” into an Florida-friendly orange). Republicans eager for him to stay took it all as a sign that Rubio might be open to their re-election overtures.

Still, the freshman senator insisted he intended only to finish his six-year term on a strong note. He hired high-profile Washington lawyer Robert Barnett to vet potential job offers and maintained he would be a “private citizen” come November. He raised money for Lopez-Cantera, his longtime friend, in D.C. and planned to headline another event for him Friday at the ritzy Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.

But GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee didn’t let up. And in interviews, Rubio sounded increasingly like a man sitting out the race chiefly because his friend was in it — not because he wasn’t interested.

“Maybe,” he told CNN.

“If the circumstances were different, but they’re not,” he told Florida reporters.

He sounded even less convinced after last week’s massacre of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub by a domestic terrorist — a tragedy that Rubio told a radio talk-show host gave him “pause” to reconsider his Senate role. He met with Lopez-Cantera in Orlando after the mass shooting, and Lopez-Cantera gave Rubio the go-ahead to run. On Monday, Rubio voted against a measure to block gun sales to suspected terrorists.

When he launched his presidential campaign in April 2015, Rubio insisted he wouldn’t run for Senate again, saying it wasn’t fair for him to leave potential successors in limbo, awaiting to see how long he would last in the race. Once his candidacy was over, Rubio’s heart seemed set on starting a fresh chapter outside the Senate, making big private-sector money and spending more time at home with his wife, Jeanette, and their four children. They recently put their West Miami house up for sale to be closer to the kids’ school and their church, he said.

Yet he had to know that Senate GOP leaders — who according to Rubio never wanted him to vie for the presidency in the first place, given his competitive seat — would try to entice him to stay if his White House bid came up short with enough time left for Rubio to seek re-election.

Even 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 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.”

Rubio, who’s always had a knack for building political suspense, extended the drama by taking until Wednesday to decide. 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.

U.S. 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, could run for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, a Jacksonville Republican who is retiring. Lopez-Cantera will remain lieutenant governor.

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

Beruff has indicated he’s prepared to tar Rubio, who was a tea-party favorite when he was first elected to office in 2010, as part of the Republican establishment that many voters now disdain. In a statement Monday, the Beruff camp sent an open message to Rubio addressing rumors that Rubio wants to run for president again in 2020 if he wins a second Senate term.

“Are you willing to look the voters of Florida in the eye and commit to serving out an entire 6-year term in the U.S. Senate?” Beruff’s campaign manager asked.

On Tuesday, Beruff’s campaign unveiled a Miami Spanish-language radio ad targeting Rubio’s voter base, Cuban-American Republicans.

Outside of Beruff and Wilcox, however, Florida GOP leaders and down-ballot candidates are 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 Republican 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 match-up in 2015.

Trump’s unpredictable presence complicates Rubio’s path to re-election. It will be much different than when Rubio, the former statehouse speaker, ran for Senate in what began as a long-shot campaign against then-Gov. Crist in 2010. Crist ultimately left the Republican Party to run as an independent (he’s now a Democrat) and Rubio beat him and Democrat Kendrick Meek.

This time around, assuming Rubio wins the Republican primary, he’ll have to contend with a presidential-year electorate, which means higher Democratic turnout than in 2010.

Though Rubio will have to put together a campaign at lightning speed, he starts with many advantages: widespread name recognition and a long list of high-profile Republican endorsers, donors and consultants in his corner.

Political groups plan to spend tens of millions of dollars in the Florida Senate race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has set aside $10 million, while Senate Majority PAC, which helps elect Democrats, has budgeted $10.5 million starting in August.

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.”

Tampa Bay Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary contributed to this report.

Marco Rubio

Born: May 28, 1971, in Miami

Political career: West Miami City Commission, 1998-2000. Florida House of Representatives, 2000-2008. House Speaker, 2006-2008. U.S. Senate, 2010-present. Ran for president from April 2015-March 2016

Residence: West Miami (though his home is for sale)

Education: Bachelor’s degree from University of Florida; law degree from University of Miami

Personal: Married to Jeanette Dousdebes Rubio; four children