Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) answers questions from the press on June 16 in Orlando after paying his respects to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting. (Joshua Lim/Orlando Sentinel via AP)
Sen. Marco Rubio said Wednesday he will seek reelection to the Senate, reversing a pledge he made a year ago to either assume the presidency or return to private life in Florida. The decision instantly transforms an already competitive race and improves Republicans’ chances of maintaining the Senate majority.
Rubio (R-Fla.) issued a lengthy statement explaining his decision to reverse course, citing the Senate’s power to “act as a check and balance on the excesses of a president” as a central reason.
“Control of the Senate may very well come down to the race in Florida,” he said. “That means the future of the Supreme Court will be determined by the Florida Senate seat. It means the future of the disastrous Iran nuclear deal will be determined by the Florida Senate seat. It means the direction of our country’s fiscal and economic policies will be determined by this Senate seat. The stakes for our nation could not be higher.”
His entry into the race comes shortly before a Friday deadline for candidate filings and after weeks of pressure from national GOP figures who urged Rubio to reconsider his frequently repeated intention to either become president or a “private citizen” come 2017.
Those entreaties were rooted in blunt political reality: Rubio, with his near-universal name recognition and proven fundraising capacity, would give Republicans their best chance of winning the swing-state seat and, perhaps, retaining the Senate majority.
“I think it moves Florida from a likely loss to an almost certain pickup, and so it’s not only important to Florida, it has a huge impact on our ability to hold the majority,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who played a leading role in persuading Rubio to run, said on Wednesday.
Josh Holmes, a political consultant who is close to McConnell, said Rubio’s decision will allow national Republican groups to shift resources to other competitive races across the country.
“It is hard to overstate how important this development is for every Republican-held seat, given that this could take the most expensive state to defend entirely off the map,” Holmes said. “This is a massive win for Florida, America and the Grand Old Party.”
The decision to continue his career in elective politics comes barely three months after Rubio, 45, ended his presidential campaign after an embarrassing loss in his home-state primary, finishing nearly 20 points behind Donald Trump and winning only one county outright — his home base of Miami-Dade. But the handful of candidates seeking to succeed him in the Senate each struggled to break out as Rubio sent a series of signals that he might be willing to seek reelection.
Trump was among those encouraging Rubio to run, tweeting: “Important to keep the MAJORITY. Run Marco!”
But Rubio said in his statement that his decision to run was motivated as much by his concerns about Trump as by his concerns about presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“No matter who is elected president, there is reason for worry,” he said. Clinton would mean “four more years of the same failed economic policies” and “the same failed foreign policy,” he said. And if Trump is elected, he continued, “we will need Senators willing to encourage him in the right direction, and if necessary, stand up to him. I’ve proven a willingness to do both.”
Rubio, who is expected to mount another presidential campaign as soon as 2020, first publicly acknowledged he was rethinking his decision last Wednesday, when he told reporters as he entered a Capitol Hill briefing on the Orlando terrorist attack, “I take very seriously everything that’s going on — not just Orlando but in our country.”
“I’ll go home later this week, and I’ll have some time with my family, and then if there’s been a change in our status I’ll be sure to let everyone know,” he said.
That same day, a close friend who had been running to succeed him, Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, told supporters in an email that “if Marco decides to enter this race, I will not be filing the paperwork to run for the U.S. Senate.” He confirmed Wednesday morning he will exit the race.
Another Republican who was running to succeed Rubio, Rep. David Jolly, announced Friday he would withdraw from the Senate race and instead seek reelection to the House in his St. Petersburg-area district.
It is unclear what now happens to the remainder of the Republican field. A poll released Friday by Saint Leo University showed Rubio easily outpolling any of the already declared GOP candidates, winning the support of roughly half of likely primary voters.
Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Senate candidate who has seen some success in tapping a national network of GOP donors, has told Republicans that, with Rubio now in the race, he intends to run for reelection to his House seat, according to three Republicans with knowledge of the talks. A spokesman for DeSantis’s campaign said an announcement of his plans would be made shortly.
But two wealthy businessmen who have launched runs — home builder Carlos Beruff and defense contractor Todd Wilcox — both said last week through campaign aides that they would remain in the race if Rubio chose to run.
Beruff on Wednesday vowed to stay in the race at least until the Aug. 30 primary and “commit the resources that are necessary” to defeat Rubio.
“His word means nothing and that’s what politicians do — they lie, and they break promises,” Beruff said in an interview. “And I think that Florida voters are much smarter than that, and I’m willing to bet my money to find out.”
Democrats have a bruising primary of their own, pitting Rep. Patrick Murphy against Rep. Alan Grayson. Murphy has the support of the national party apparatus and has raised more than $7 million for his campaign — much more than any of the current Republican candidates. But he may have to spend a considerable chunk of it to beat Grayson, a liberal firebrand with a dedicated following among progressive activists, in the Aug. 30 primary.
In any case, Rubio’s entry instantly makes Florida one of the country’s most competitive and closely watched Senate races. Democrats are confident that they will be able to use Rubio’s absenteeism during his presidential run, his series of dismissive remarks about the Senate and his conservative voting record against him. A Democratic super PAC, American Bridge, on Friday released a 2½-minute video chronicling the many times Rubio has complained about or vowed to leave the Senate.
In a hint of the hard-fought campaign to come, Murphy issued a statement Wednesday morning accusing Rubio of being “only out for himself” and slamming him for missing scores of Senate votes, voting in favor sweeping restrictions on abortion and opposing Democratic amendments this week that would tighten gun laws in the aftermath of the Orlando attack.
“Marco Rubio abandoned his constituents, and now he’s treating them like a consolation prize,” Murphy said. “Unlike Marco Rubio, I love working hard every single day for the people of Florida.”
There is also the Trump factor: The presumptive GOP nominee is expected to be a drag on down-ballot Republicans in a state where nearly 20 percent of the voting-age population is Hispanic.
Donors on both sides are likely to be highly motivated — Democrats by the prospect of delivering a knockout blow to Rubio’s political career, Republicans by the necessity of keeping the Senate majority and supporting a breakout star of the party. Rubio and his team called some of his top donors on Wednesday morning, asking them to help raise funds quickly for what could easily be the most expensive Senate race of the year.
Anna Rogers Duncan, who served as Rubio’s national finance director on his presidential campaign, emailed supporters Wednesday morning to inform them Rubio would provide them with a “political update” via conference call in the afternoon, according to a copy of the note obtained by The Washington Post.
Upon launching his presidential campaign, Rubio said he would not leave the door open for a return to the Senate, explaining that he did not want to treat the job as a fallback. On the campaign trail, he frequently described his frustration with Capitol Hill. Only after leaving the trail did he modify that assessment, blaming Democratic leaders for his poor attitude toward the Senate.
For months after the campaign ended, those closest to Rubio insisted he was determined to return to Miami, explore lucrative private-sector opportunities, raise his young family and regroup for another presidential run. But GOP leaders deployed a variety of arguments to lure him back into the race, such as the need to keep the Senate majority, the security threats facing the nation and the coming exodus of lawmakers from the Florida congressional delegation.
“It’s a very dangerous world out there, and Florida is losing a lot of key people,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a Rubio ally. “I really think the country and the state needs him. . . . This is not something he was looking at doing, but a lot of folks are asking him to do it.”
Jolly, however, suggested Rubio’s reversal was not quite as spontaneous as it appeared. “It’s textbook,” he said, noting the slow crescendo that started with an uptick in Rubio’s legislative presence, followed by a open draft movement led by McConnell, culminating in a dramatic exchange in which Lopez-Cantera privately urged Rubio to run after the two visited the scene of the Orlando attack — a conversation that was detailed in a Politico story Wednesday, released hours before Rubio publicly acknowledged he was rethinking his future.
The draft-Rubio campaign, Jolly said, killed any chance any other Republican had to win Rubio’s seat: “Generously I would say it froze the field, but also I could make the argument that it eviscerated it. . . . There were other ways to handle it.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.
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