Crushing Florida Loss Caps Rubio’s Disappointing Presidential Run
Marco Rubio's presidential bid ended in the state where his political career began.
Rubio suspended his campaign Tuesday night after losing the last-stand primary in his home state of Florida to billionaire businessman Donald Trump, becoming the latest establishment Republican to fail to gain traction in a year of voter anger at Washington.
“America's in the middle of a political storm, and we should have seen it coming,” Rubio told his supporters just before being interrupted by a heckler. While Rubio said he understood the populist anger that has propelled Trump's campaign, he “chose a different route.” Rubio also offered a warning, saying, “The politics of resentment against other people will not just leave us a fractured party, it will leave us a fractured nation.”
“While it is not God's plan that I be president in 2016, or maybe ever, and while today my campaign is suspended, the fact that I've even come this far is evidence of how special America truly is,” Rubio said.
Rubio was touted on a 2013 cover of Time magazine as the “savior” of the Republican Party, with his youth, Cuban heritage, and poise as a public speaker making him an immediate favorite in the GOP nomination race. As the 2016 campaign began, he enthusiastically followed a script that cast him in that role, selling what he portrayed as his fresh, optimistic approach to governing.
“Too many of our leaders and our ideas are stuck in the 20th century,” Rubio, 44, said when he announced his candidacy on April 13, 2015 in Miami.
But Trump's entry into the crowded field helped upend Rubio's prospects, making clear the electorate's hunger for outsider politicians. As Trump's nativist message drew populist support, Rubio was forced to revise his script, eschewing what many had considered a central selling point: his role in helping pass a 2013 immigration reform bill in the U.S. Senate. Following the terrorist attacks in California and Paris, Rubio began calling for a tightening of existing immigration laws.
“The same people who inspired the attacks in Paris, who inspired the attacks in California are trying to use our immigration system against us,” Rubio said in January while campaigning in New Hampshire. “This has become national security issue. And when an issue changes, so must your policies.”
While establishment rivals continued to split the votes not being cast for Trump, Rubio tallied a series of disappointing, also-ran finishes in the early states leading up to Super Tuesday on March 1. On that day, he won Minnesota, his first state of the race, but took a drubbing in the other 10 states where contests were held. From then on, Rubio's only real hope was winning his home state of Florida and preventing Trump from amassing the 1,237 delegates needed to claim the Republican nomination ahead of the party's July convention.
“I am focused on one thing right now,” Rubio told reporters while campaigning last week in West Palm Beach, “and that is winning the state of Florida, and then moving on in my campaign.”
Rubio, whose political career began in 1998 when he was elected city commissioner for West Miami, won a special election in 2000 for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives, where he served for eight years and became speaker. In 2010, he defeated former Florida Governor Charlie Crist to become the junior U.S. senator from Florida, and went on to serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence.
Not yet at the end of his first term in Washington, Rubio made the political calculation to run for president, betting that his relative inexperience could be turned into an advantage as the Republican Party searched for new faces and ideas to retake the White House.
Throughout his campaign, Rubio pointed to polls that showed him beating Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton by larger margins than his GOP rivals. Yet his bigger problems were Trump and his other Republican rivals, who painted him as too inexperienced to hold the highest office in the land. Trump labeled him a “lightweight,” and Bush attacked his poor voting record as a member of the Senate.
“People that are serving need to show up and work. Period. Over and out,” Bush told CNN in November. “I just think people need to show up and work.”
No single criticism or insult stung Rubio more, however, than his clash with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Feb. 6 in New Hampshire. Christie ruthlessly mocked Rubio's robotic, canned answers, and attack lines.
“I want the people at home to see this. That is what Washington D.C. does,” Christie said. “The drive-by attack at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorized 25-second speech.”
Attempting to counter Christie, Rubio seemed incapable of not repeating himself. “This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true,” Rubio said again and again, illustrating Christie's point.
Following that performance, Rubio finished a distant fifth place in New Hampshire, a disappointment after his strong third-place finish in Iowa.
Despite his struggle at the ballot boxes, Rubio continued to earn the endorsements of establishment Republicans across the country and in Washington. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and numerous Senate colleagues argued that Rubio was the candidate best suited to stop Trump's march to the nomination.
Yet Rubio himself waited until after the New Hampshire primary to attempt to cast himself as Trump's chief critic. “If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan,” Rubio said during a Feb. 25 debate in Houston.
He also portrayed Trump as a hypocrite for hiring the kinds of undocumented workers he now wants to deport, and briefly tried his hands at the kinds of personal attacks that seem to work for the billionaire front-runner.
At a Salem, Virginia, rally, Rubio mocked Trump for having small hands. “And you know what they say about guys with small hands,” Rubio chided, before adding, “You can't trust 'em!”
Days later, after drawing scorn for taking the low road in an attempt to beat Trump, Rubio disavowed the tactics.
“In terms of things that have to do with personal stuff, yeah, at the end of the day it's not something I'm entirely proud of. My kids were embarrassed by it, and if I had to do it again I wouldn't,” he said in a town hall.
Whatever the factors behind it, Rubio simply underperformed in 2016, and ultimately lost his home state by nearly 20 points to Trump.
While the party's sudden hunger for an outsider doomed Rubio's prospects in this campaign, the damage to his political career could prove longer lasting. Florida law prohibits a candidate from appearing on the ballot for two offices at once, and Rubio has said he'd skip his 2016 Senate re-election effort to seek the White House.
“If I never hold public office again, I’m comfortable with that,” Rubio told reporters in West Palm Beach last week. “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen two to four years from now. But I have no plans. No thoughts. No contemplation. No meetings. Nothing about any future political run of any sort.”
—With assistance from David Knowles.