Early on Monday, news broke that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) will run for president, ending any uncertainty about his future and whether he would remain in the Senate. He was scheduled to officially announce his candidacy late Monday afternoon.
As he enters the race, Rubio sits in third behind ex-Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) and Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) in our current 2016 Republican presidential rankings. This positioning reflects both the potential, and the drawbacks, of Rubio’s candidacy.
Regarding his potential, Rubio seems to check most boxes. He’s an excellent speaker and a more polished politician in many respects than some of his opponents, including Bush and Walker. His ethnic background as a Cuban American sets him apart from the others, except Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who shares the same heritage as Rubio, and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA), an Indian American. Rubio also impresses many Republican insiders, who view him as having the wherewithal to be a capable national candidate, with stronger electability than Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Cruz, and some other possible outsider candidates such as Dr. Ben Carson and ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA). To borrow a racing metaphor, Rubio’s position in the establishment derby could allow him to draft until Bush and/or Walker falter and enter pit lane, springing Rubio into the lead.
The Florida senator also will portray himself as an “ideas candidate” in the reform conservative mold, most recently exemplified by his new taxation proposal, which he put together with Tea Party Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). Having received strong backing from the Tea Party in his 2010 Senate victory, when he forced then-Gov. Charlie Crist (R) out of the GOP primary and into an independent bid, some Republicans hope that Rubio, like Walker, may be able to straddle the establishment and grassroots division that has often appeared in recent intraparty conflicts.
At the same time, there are inherent dangers in Rubio’s candidacy. For example, an “ideas candidate” can be especially vulnerable. The Rubio-Lee tax plan is complex and some aspects could leave Rubio open to attack on his right flank. He will almost certainly draw criticism from his fellow Republicans for his work on the Senate’s 2013 comprehensive immigration bill. Additionally, Rubio will be competing with a fellow Floridian, Bush, who is determined to siphon up money and support in the Sunshine State.
Should neither Bush nor Walker falter, it’s more difficult to see Rubio’s path to victory. National polling places Rubio well back in the pack, though he may get a boost from his announcement. Rubio may also be criticized about his preparation for the presidency — the obvious comparisons to President Obama as a first-term senator running for the White House — and Bush and Walker are likely to challenge him on that. Luckily for Rubio, freshman senators Cruz and Paul have the same problem. Lastly, Rubio’s decision to run for president means that he’s giving up his Senate seat, which he would have been at least a slight favorite to retain. Many national and Florida Republicans might well prefer that he have just run for reelection.
Rubio is relatively unknown compared to some of the other big names in the race: HuffPost Pollster’s average shows that only about 60% of the country has a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him, with an even split on the question. Walker is in the same camp, with just 53% having a view, also evenly split. To some extent, this is good news for Rubio. He will have a lot of room to grow as potential voters get to know him, giving him a leg up over Jeb Bush and another GOP hopeful, Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ).
As of this writing, Rubio’s average in national GOP primary polling is basically tied with Christie’s. But whereas just six in 10 Americans have an opinion on Rubio, three-fourths have a favorable or unfavorable view of Christie, and the latter’s numbers have been sinking — his net national favorability is now at -19. More importantly for the GOP primary process, Christie is simply not well liked by many Republicans. A recent Monmouth University poll found Christie with a -9 net favorability among GOP voters. Despite his problems with the base, Bush was at least at +18 in the same poll — and Rubio is even better, at +23. Christie is in a lot of trouble, to the benefit of Rubio in the race for some establishment backing.
Florida Senate seat now a Toss-up
Rubio’s presidential ambitions leave an open U.S. Senate seat to be contested in 2016. We had previously listed the GOP as slight favorites in case Rubio opted to seek reelection, but now it’s time to make a change. With Rubio’s announcement, we are moving the 2016 Florida Senate contest from Leans Republican to Toss-up.
Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings change
Now the question is, who will run on the Republican side? The GOP has a deep bench in Florida, controlling a large majority of the U.S. House delegation, all but one statewide office (the other Senate seat, held by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson), and the state legislature. Before Rubio’s announcement, there was a major shake-up in the still-forming Republican field when Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater (R) stunned everyone by deciding against a Senate bid; he may well run for governor in 2018. Atwater may have been able to clear the field, but now the GOP nomination race appears wide open.
With Atwater’s decision, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R) is more likely to enter the contest. Lopez-Cantera will be fighting against history, however, as the lieutenant governorship has not been a gateway to future electoral success in Florida. Among the GOP House delegation, Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) is viewed as most likely to throw his hat in the ring — he has been compared to new Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) as an Ivy League veteran who has earned backing from conservative groups like the Club for Growth. Reps. Tom Rooney (R) and Vern Buchanan (R) have also garnered mention, as has ex-state Speaker of the House Will Weatherford (R).
A former occupant of this seat, ex-Sen. George LeMieux (R), has also acknowledged some interest in a Senate run. LeMieux was appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist (R) to serve out the remainder of former Sen. Mel Martinez’s (R) term after Martinez resigned in 2009, with the expectation that Crist would run for the seat himself in 2010. As it turned out, Rubio challenged Crist on his right flank and wound up pushing him out of the GOP primary. Crist decided to run as an independent, but finished a distant second to Rubio in the 2010 general election; Crist later became a Democrat and narrowly lost to Gov. Rick Scott (R) in the 2014 gubernatorial contest. Given LeMieux’s failed Senate effort in 2012 — he dropped out prior to the GOP primary — it’s difficult to imagine him winning if he were to run this time.
While we are obviously focused on 2016, the maneuvering for Rubio’s seat on the Republican side has serious consequences for the GOP fields in the 2018 gubernatorial and Senate contests in Florida (Nelson will face reelection in 2018). Besides Atwater, other big Republican names have either already passed on the 2016 Senate race or are expected to: State Attorney General Pam Bondi (R) has declined to run and state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam (R) probably will too, though it’s possible they may reconsider in light of Atwater’s decision. But if they don’t, the 2018 cycle could offer some real primary election drama in Florida, especially if Rubio fails to win the Republican presidential nomination. Rubio could target the governorship as a means to gain executive experience to boost a future presidential run — after all, he’ll only be 45 years old in November 2016. Meanwhile, Scott is rumored to be eyeing Nelson’s Senate seat, and some combination of Atwater, Bondi, and Putnam may run for one office or the other.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) entered the 2016 Senate race prior to Rubio’s presidential announcement and remains the only noteworthy candidate. The centrist Murphy has attracted a great deal of establishment support, especially with the possibility of a run by the more liberal (and contentious) Rep. Alan Grayson (D). Should Grayson run, the Democratic primary could get ugly and expensive — and if Grayson is the nominee, the Republican nominee is likely to be the favorite in the general election. Murphy, a former Republican, is the kind of moderate Democrat who historically has had success in Florida.
Florida is one of the three or four most important swing states in American politics, and it should be little surprise that an open-seat, presidential-year Senate contest could wind up being extremely competitive. At this point, polls won’t tell us much, though Quinnipiac just took a very early look at four potential matchups involving Murphy or Grayson and Atwater or Lopez-Cantera (though Atwater is out now). What we do know is that a mountain of money and resources will be thrown into this state by both parties — both the presidency and control of the Senate could depend on it.