After a year in which he swore he wouldn’t run for re-election, it looks as if Marco Rubio will be trying to reclaim his Florida Senate seat this fall. If, as now appears likely, Rubio does jump back into the race, it will in part be a reflection of the panic Republicans feel about their prospects for holding onto their Senate majority because of Donald Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket in November. But as high as the stakes are for the GOP, they will be even higher for the former presidential candidate. He will be doing nothing less than gambling what might still be a very bright political future on the outcome of one election.
The turnabout is awkward for Rubio. It wasn’t just that he preferred to be president; he’s far from the only member of that body to think his talents would be better employed as commander-in-chief. Rubio also made little secret about being frustrated with his current job, and his much-reported absenteeism was just the most obvious manifestation of that feeling. After his once-promising presidential campaign ended in defeat at Trump’s hands in his home state, it appeared Rubio would happily head into the private sector to make some money and spend more time with his family while preparing for another run for the White House.
What changed his mind? Only Rubio and his intimates know the complete answer. If he does take the plunge, the senator will likely tell us that he felt it was his duty to stay in public life and that the Orlando massacre played a role in his decision. But the main factor seems to revolve around Trump.
As the presumptive GOP’s presidential candidate’s poll numbers head south, he’s taking the party’s hopes for retaining control of the Senate with him. Having Trump at the top of the ticket is already starting to have an effect on polls in competitive races. Larry Sabato’s respected Crystal Ball website reflects the consensus of thinking, which holds that the fate of the Senate rests on five tossup seats. Florida is one of them, but none of the Republicans vying to replace Rubio have caught fire, and few think anyone but the incumbent can hold onto it for the GOP amid the general panic in the party about Trump.
Like other Republicans Rubio is bound to be thinking about what political life will be like after Trump crashes and burns. Whether or not the Republicans hold onto either the Senate or the House, the key question will be whether the isolationist and protectionist sentiments that the real estate mogul exploited will retain their grip on the GOP after his likely defeat.
If Rubio wants to influence that struggle in favor of a return to conservative principles, especially about the need for a strong American presence in the world, then a Senate seat will be a far better starting position than the private sector. When Republican fortunes are at their nadir, Rubio’s articulate voice will be needed. It’s also true that without staying in public life, Rubio might be eclipsed by other equally attractive young Senate Republicans like Tom Cotton or Ben Sasse–the darling of the stillborn #NeverTrump movement–as well as fellow 2016 loser Ted Cruz. If Rubio wants to be taken seriously for a 2020 campaign that will start even before the debris from Hillary Clinton’s inaugural parade is swept up, being one of the few Republican winners in what may otherwise be a grim November for the GOP will be a plus.
But the same reason that may impel Rubio to run could also be the factor that destroys his hopes. Anyone putting his name on the ballot underneath that of Trump in a non-red state could be asking for a beating, and that’s especially true in a state where Hispanics are numerous. Even with his name recognition and an ability to raise more money than any other Florida Republican this year, Rubio is far from a lock to win back his seat. If Representative Patrick Murphy is their nominee, the Democrats will have a formidable challenger who can run against Trump as much as Rubio. As the New York Times noted in an article about speculation about Rubio, the first questions that were posed to the senator on Capitol Hill this past week were about Trump, not the possibility that he might run again.
Standing apart from Trump, a man whose views are in many respects completely antithetical to his worldview, would be the most comfortable stance for Rubio and might position him best for the future. At the same time, if he plays the good soldier and takes part in Trump’s coronation in Cleveland next month, that may taint him in the eyes of many voters–including some Republicans, even if it also ensures that the nominee’s followers don’t abandon him. Either way, Rubio is taking a gamble.
It will be a cruel irony if the same Trump surge that knocked Rubio out of the presidential race winds up generating a Democratic landslide that drowns his chances for re-election to the Senate. A victory would make him the focus of a great political comeback story. But if he runs and loses, he has to realize that, despite his relative youth, his political career might be over.