The Rubio record: From tea party hero to immigration reformer and beyond

Meredith Shiner
·Political correspondent

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) reacts to President Barack Obama’s announcement about revising policies on U.S.-Cuba relations. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

In the winter of 2010, conservative firebrand Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., turned an upstart U.S. Senate candidate from Florida into the face of the tea party effort to bring more hardline conservatives into the Republican Party and Congress.

“I’d rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters,” DeMint declared at the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference, launching what would become a tagline for the antiestablishment conservative uprising that year. Specter, a five-term moderate Republican from Pennsylvania, had switched his party affiliation in 2009 and joined with the majority Democrats.

DeMint’s statement reflected what a rock star Rubio had become in conservative circles. Young, Hispanic and ambitious, Rubio had just forced former Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate Republican, from Florida’s GOP Senate primary, seizing the party’s nomination. Crist went on to run against Rubio as an independent in the general election, losing by nearly 20 points — to the delight of a conservative base that saw other upset wins across the country, from Kentucky to Utah.

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Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) speaks in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

That was then. Rubio’s stint as conservative icon is now less a defining feature of his career than it is a discordant footnote to his political story.

On Monday, Rubio will announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, using a brief Senate career that DeMint could not have imagined as his launching pad. And when he does, the one-time face of the tea party will be the most establishment candidate amid the already crowded field of sitting senators vying for the 2016 GOP nod.

Rubio and his colleagues-turned-opponents Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky all arrived at the Senate the same way — by staging primary upsets over establishment candidates — yet their political makeup and brief stints in Congress could not be more different.

Cruz and Paul spent years tending to their grassroots bases, staging dramatic filibusters and dissenting from leadership when it proved personally expedient. For his part, Rubio has been treading the path of an establishment operator, but with an edge, thanks to his unique personal story.

In Rubio’s five-plus years in Washington, no single issue has come to define his career more than immigration reform. The fight over the bill to reform the immigration system reveals much about the Florida Republican’s savvy and ambition when it comes to building a political infrastructure — and also about his sometimes confrontational relationship with the conservative base that helped elect him.

Rubio was one of eight bipartisan negotiators on a sweeping immigration reform bill, which garnered significant GOP support when it passed the Senate in 2013. But the bill was never even called up for a vote in the House. At the time, Senate sources noted how crucial Rubio was to the debate on the issue: His mix of then-impeccable tea party credentials and already-known presidential ambitions made him a bridge between constituencies.

During Senate debate on the bill, Rubio set up a campaign-style rapid-response operation , manned by eight staffers and modeled after President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign press operation, to “bust myths” being propagated about the legislation through conservative media. Sometimes in multiple emails per day, Rubio’s staff attacked opponents of the bill, including other Republican senators such as Jeff Sessions of Alabama and David Vitter of Louisiana. Conservative pundits and publications did not escape the operation’s attention, either: Ann Coulter, Mickey Kaus and Michelle Malkin — along with the Daily Caller, the Washington Times, RedState, Breitbart and the Wall Street Journal — all were targets of the Rubio fact-checking operation.

At the time, sources inside the Senate remarked that such a press shop was “sophisticated” and a good foundation for a national run. Outside of the Capitol dome, however, top conservative influencers viewed Rubio’s style differently.

Erick Erickson penned a column at RedState titled “I Have Seen Shameful Things,” in which he lambasted the senator’s staff.

“Rubio wants to do the right thing. I think he set before himself a good, but unpopular task. … But I think the actions of some members of his staff coordinating attacks on solid conservatives is undermining the cause he and I both believe in,” he wrote two months before the bill eventually passed the Senate.

Rubio won the battle in the Senate but went on to lose the war over the bill, and as it became clear that the House Republican leadership would not hold a vote on the bipartisan measure, Rubio largely disappeared from public view to regroup. Instead of being a signature legislative accomplishment, the immigration bill became a kind of inkblot test through which Republicans of differing ideological stripes view him.

As Yahoo News reported in January , Rubio has distanced himself from the most significant changes to the immigration system implemented recently, calling for both of Obama’s executive actions to be repealed and saying he never saw his work on immigration reform as a personal boon to his political career.

“I have never viewed immigration [reform] as a way to win elections; I’ve just viewed it as important and the right thing,” Rubio told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington as Republicans began their tenure in the Senate majority. “If you do the right thing, ultimately the politics takes care of itself.”

Outside of immigration, Rubio has never been the lead sponsor of a bill that has become law, though he, like every other senator, has served in two of the least productive Congresses in American history. Sixteen laws he cosponsored between 2011 and 2014 were signed into law, according to records kept by the Library of Congress . More of those laws — six — came out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee than from any other panel.

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Sen. Rubio speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Indeed, in early interviews about a prospective bid, Rubio has focused on his foreign policy credentials. He’s used his time in the Senate to contrast himself with governors who have executive experience but have spent little time grappling with international issues. Rubio has been an outspoken voice against Obama’s relaxation of a longstanding embargo on Cuba, as well as the president’s policies in the Middle East.

According to his Senate office, Rubio has taken 10 official congressional trips to foreign countries since being elected: Afghanistan, Kuwait and Pakistan in January 2011; Malta and Libya in September 2011; Spain and Germany for the Munich Security Conference inFebruary 2012; Haiti in January 2012; Colombia for the Summit of the Americas in April 2012; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in May 2012; Jordan and Israel in February 2013; England in December 2013; Japan, the Philippines and South Korea in January 2014; and Colombia in November 2014.

In contrast, Paul has taken no official congressional trips abroad, and Cruz has taken five, though both those senators also have traveled internationally with groups not affiliated with Congress.

Though Rubio’s relationship with prospective potential candidate Jeb Bush, a former mentor in Florida, has been well scrutinized , especially when it comes to whether Rubio can fund-raise against the Bush name, his brief Senate career reveals a politician who has spent years planning for a prospective national run.

The big question now is whether that groundwork will pay dividends, or whether Rubio has become too “Arlen Specter” for the conservative-leaning party that clamored for a 2010 Marco Rubio.


For more Rubio coverage, watch Katie Couric’s sit down with the senator: