Immigration Reform Isn't Hurting Marco Rubio's Bottom Line

Beth Reinhard
National Journal

Though championing immigration reform is widely viewed as a political gamble for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, it hasn't stalled his rapidly churning fundraising machine.

A spokesman for the first-term senator from Florida said Monday that his reelection campaign, leadership committee, and a newly created joint fundraising committee collected $2.28 million in the past three months. During that time, Rubio has been the most prominent face of the immigration-reform talks on Capitol Hill, which are expected to produce legislation Tuesday.

“People appreciate his kind of leadership and that he’s taking such a thoughtful approach to the immigration issue,” said Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a conservative group that generally supports the overhaul of immigration laws proposed by a bipartisan group of senators, including Rubio. “People appreciate him stepping up.”

Rubio has amassed more money in any three-month period since his 2010 election and so far has avoided a major backlash from conservatives wary of immigration reform, in part by positioning himself as one of the most outspoken critics of President Obama's gun-control efforts, foreign policy, and economic strategy. In fact, Rubio's new fundraising vehicle and a $700,000 direct-mail kickoff suggests that he's better positioned than ever to run for president in 2016, despite his claim Sunday on CNN's State of the Union that "I haven’t even thought about it in that way.... I really haven't. I have a job."

Rubio’s joint fundraising committee streamlines his national fundraising operations by pairing his campaign and Reclaim America committee and allowing big donors to stroke a single check. National candidates from President Obama to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney employed the same strategy.

“These are the things people do when they are building a national campaign,” said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group. “A joint fundraising committee allows you to be a bigger player, and then you can leverage it when you run for higher office.”

For every dollar donated to the Rubio Victory Committee, 60 cents goes to his campaign account and 40 cents goes to Reclaim America, after expenses. Rubio’s political team said the senator had $2.32 million altogether as of the end of March. (All three committees are filing reports this week with the Federal Election Commission but only Reclaim America’s fundraising through February was available Monday online.)

That report showed Reclaim America raised $299,260 in the first two months of 2013 and spent $258,578. Most of the expenses were paid to Rubio’s coterie of political consultants, professional fund-raisers, and pollsters who appear to be laying the groundwork for a presidential bid.

Rubio has been performing a remarkable balancing act in recent months, embarking on a one-man media blitz to tout immigration reform (he did seven talk shows on Sunday) without letting the issue totally define him. His response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech will be remembered more for his thirst— he reached off camera for a water bottle in the middle of his remarks—than it will be for his brief reference to the immigration system. His leadership PAC leveraged publicity over his thirst-quenching maneuver to sell Rubio-branded water bottles and raised $250,000.

Rubio has also drawn attention this year for supporting Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster of the president’s CIA appointment, voting against budget deals with President Obama and opposing his gun-control proposals across the board. His speech last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference didn’t even mention immigration and was notable for its defense of the party’s platform. “We don’t need a new idea. There is an idea, the idea is called America, and it still works,” he declared.

The senator has worked diligently to maintain his credibility with conservatives by pressing for tighter border security in the immigration bill, going out of his way to emphasize disagreements with liberals and demanding a series of public hearings.  “It puts in place effective enforcement mechanisms unlike anything we’ve ever had in the history of this country before,” he said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. When other senators were crowing that they were close to a deal two weeks ago, Rubio said declarations of success were “premature” and emphasized he would not support any agreement that didn’t meet his conservative standards.

“He was playing hard to get before, but he definitely wanted to be got,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Reform, which opposes allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. “A lot of his maneuvering over the past few months has been theater so he could preserve his ability to sell amnesty to conservatives.”

Rubio dismissed the idea that he was playing politics on Meet the Press, saying, “I quite frankly have avoided making the political calculus on this issue.”

Not only has Rubio yet to pay a steep political price among conservatives, his changed position on immigration has drawn few complaints from liberals who see the charismatic Cuban-American senator as crucial to passing legislation through a gridlocked Congress. During a nationally televised debate in his 2010 campaign, Rubio said, “Earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty.” Asked about that remark on Meet the Press, Rubio responded: “What I said throughout my campaign was that I was against a blanket amnesty, and this is not blanket amnesty.”

While Rubio has carefully navigated the issue, it’s too soon to declare that he has avoided any major political repercussions. Once the bill is unveiled and people and interest groups get hold of the details, he is likely to face criticism from all sides of the issue. He is also likely to get the most credit.

“It will be interesting to see if it gets bad when the bill is released and how [it] does in the next fundraising quarter,” said Republican strategist Dave Carney, who was advising Texas Gov. Rick Perry when his support for college-tuition breaks for undocumented children cost him support in the 2012 GOP primary. “When it comes to a competitive presidential primary, this will become an issue, no question.”