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That headline – with a photo showcasing Rubio’s boyish yet statesman-like look – cast him as the Republican Party leader for a new generation. Moreover, Rubio’s name was phonetically linked to “rising-young-star” while he led the GOP’s charge on immigration reform.
Strategists and pundits discussed whether Rubio was the party’s Hispanic answer to Barack Obama. After all, the same week Rubio appeared on Time’s cover, he gave the Republican response to the State of the Union address.
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Fast forward eight years to last week’s Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey, which reveals that Rubio’s “new voice” and “Republican Savior” monikers have not aged well. At age 50, he languishes at the bottom of his party’s 2024 presidential prospects list — supported by just 3 percent of Republican voters.
So, what happened to Rubio, the GOP’s “new leader for the next generation”?
No slouch by any standard, he is a respected senior senator from the nation’s third most populous state and known for foreign policy expertise. In 2022, he will vie for his third term and likely will prevail against Rep. Val Demings — but only after a tough, expensive fight. How expensive? In June, a FOX News headline read: “Rubio-Demings 2022 showdown could become most expensive Senate race ever.” That means Democrats think Rubio is beatable, and in politics, perception is reality.
What contributed to his “downfall”? One argument is that Rubio peaked too early and prematurely reacted to media hype. Then in 2015 – beginning in the fourth year of his first six-year term – Rubio contracted a severe case of “Potomac Fever,” a contagious yet common Senate disease. The fever deluded him into thinking he could be Obama’s successor.
Predictably, Rubio struggled throughout the 2016 primary season and dropped out on March 15, after winning only 27% of Florida primary voters compared to 46% for Donald Trump.
Rubio’s embarrassing and career-altering campaign never gained traction. It was plagued by bad political timing and conflict with Trump, who reduced Rubio to “Little Marco” — permanently popping his “Republican Savior” balloon.
Humiliated by his presidential run, on March 17, 2016, Rubio declared, “I’m not running for re-election to the Senate.” Nevertheless, two days before the June 24 deadline, he filed for reelection, saying, “I changed my mind.”
Ironically one of the five primary candidates fighting for Rubio’s then-open seat was a little-known, young, two-term congressman from the Daytona Beach area named Ron DeSantis. He promptly went back to his 6th District and won reelection but whet his appetite for statewide office.
In November 2016, Rubio retained his Senate seat with only 52% of the vote against a lackluster Democrat named Patrick Murphy. Trump, at the top of the ticket, won the state by only 1.2 percentage points.
As we head into the 2022 election cycle, Rubio has carved out a lane of national and Senate respectability. But the early momentum from his 2013 glory days is lost because the Republican Party and Tea Party wing that first elected him in 2010 have radically changed. Rubio belongs to the Trumplican Party now but is not considered a true MAGA-hat-wearing believer.
Politically speaking, the two-term senator is smothered by DeSantis, who is smothered by former President Trump. Loyalty to Trump is the only standard that seems to matter. And Trumplicans, especially those in Florida, know the difference between true believers and those who pretend because they have no choice.
Rubio’s last chapter hasn’t been written. Born in 1971, he could be a factor in presidential cycles for at least two more decades. Rubio could be perceived as a moderate, compromise candidate when the Trump era ends. Moreover, serving for decades, he could become a “lion of the Senate” — even majority leader someday.
Then perhaps when Rubio is in his late 60s, some young GOP presidential candidate might pluck him from the Senate and choose him to be his running mate — adding gravitas and foreign policy experience to a national winning ticket.
In the end, Rubio is a man of great faith who often tweets Bible verses. And this once so-called “Republican Savior” knows that His Savior was humiliated and defeated by his people, but ultimately resurrected.
Cross posted at The Hill