Another piece to Rubio puzzle in place: Lopez-Cantera says he should run

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a news conference, June 3, 2016, in Doral about federal funding to combat the Zika virus.
Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a news conference, June 3, 2016, in Doral about federal funding to combat the Zika virus. AP

The last piece in the puzzling picture of whether Marco Rubio will seek re-election to the U.S. Senate may have fallen into place Wednesday when his friend, and chosen successor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, said he thinks Rubio should run.

Lopez-Cantera, the lieutenant governor from Miami, told Politico that he encouraged Rubio to run as they sat in Rubio’s pickup truck in Orlando Sunday evening.

“You should reconsider running for your seat,” Lopez-Cantera said he told Rubio.

Rubio replied: “I don’t want you to feel like you have to say that because of outside pressure.”

Lopez-Cantera told Politico: “Nothing has changed. I’m still running. Marco isn’t.”

It was a sharp change of tone from Monday, when Lopez-Cantera refused to comment on Rubio’s remarks earlier that day that indicated the first-term U.S. senator from West Miami was reconsidering his decision not to run for re-election.

“I won’t comment on that,” Lopez-Cantera said at the time. He then refused to answer questions about his role in Orlando this week in the aftermath of the shooting.

On Wednesday afternoon, Lopez-Cantera put out a statement: “I have asked Sen. Marco Rubio to reconsider his decision and enter the Senate race. The decision is his and his alone to make. As friends for 20 years, this race is so much bigger than the two of us, and, as you have heard me say on the trail, this race isn’t about an individual, this race is about Florida and the future of our country. I am still in this race and nothing has changed.

“However, if Marco decides to enter this race, I will not be filing the paperwork to run for the U.S. Senate. I want to thank you for your support thus far, and encourage you to continue working with me in the greatest cause there is: ensuring our country’s values are defended and upheld.”

Lopez-Cantera could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon and spokespersons for him and Rubio did not immediately respond to emails.

Rubio made brief comments to reporters in Washington in which he confirmed the Politico story and said he will go home this weekend to decide his future with his family.

Friends of both Rubio and Lopez-Cantera, however, say the two key components of Rubio’s decision will be the reaction of his family, and whether an alternative political trajectory can be found for the lieutenant governor. Sources said they are encouraging him to run for state Chief Financial Officer in 2018, when Jeff Atwater leaves because of term limits.

Brian Ballard, a Republican lobbyist who backed Rubio in the presidential race, said that Lopez-Cantera’s encouragement is significant.

“It’s an important go-ahead,” Ballard said. “I think family considerations are the most important. Once he resolves that then obviously Carlos being OK with it is hugely important.”

The four other Republicans in the field will have to decide whether to stay in the race if Rubio jumps in.

Before the Politico article, U.S. Rep. David Jolly had already planned to make an announcement about his political future Friday morning, and Todd Wilcox said he’d still run no matter what. The other GOP candidates are U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Carlos Beruff. On the Democratic side, the leading candidates are Congressmen Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy.

While running for president, Rubio had said that as of January 2017 he would either be in the White House or a private citizen and repeatedly denied that he would seek reelection if he dropped out. After he lost the Florida primary and exited the race, he maintained a similar stance.

But high-profile Republicans — including Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — encouraged Rubio to run to help the party keep the seat. Rubio started to show a pinch of wiggle room in May when asked by the Miami Herald if he would run if Lopez-Cantera didn’t qualify for the ballot. Rubio dismissed that as a hypothetical.

And then on Monday, Rubio told radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt that he had “been deeply impacted by” the Orlando shooting and appeared to be reconsidering his future.

“I think when it visits your home state, when it impacts a community you know well, it really gives you pause to think a little bit about your service to your country and where you can be most useful to your country,” Rubio said.

He added: “My family and I will be praying about all of this. And we’ll see what I need to do next with my life with regard to how I can best serve.”

The clock is ticking for Rubio to decide: qualifying for the ballot starts Monday and ends Friday, June 24.

That means that should he jump in, Rubio has less than two months before some voters start casting absentee ballots in advance of the Aug. 30 primary.

But Rubio starts with 100 percent name identification and a network of donors and national support, Ballard said.

“He’s got plenty of time; he uniquely has plenty of time.”

Rubio has support from the party establishment and plenty of loyal donors and consultants ready to jump on board. However, the campaign will not be a cakewalk for Rubio who has little time to pull it off. He won in 2010, the year of the tea party, and benefited from a three-way race that split votes between independent Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek. If he wins the primary, unlike in 2010, he will appear on the ballot along with the presidential candidates, which tends to drive up Democratic turnout in Florida.

Rubio had $3.3 million cash on hand and $2 million in debt through April, the most recent report available.

Tampa Bay Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary and Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report.