Marco Rubio’s Tea Party Ride, and Crash, Into National Politics

The first generation son of Cuban exiles is rising to become a rare, outspoken conservative Latino on the national stage.

By Jamilah King Aug 27, 2010

Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio is on a mission. After winning his state’s Republican primary earlier this week, he’s set to face Democratic challenger Kendrick Meek and independent Gov. Charlie Christ in what’s already become one of the most dramatic midterm elections this year. If Rubio’s able to pull off a victory–taking over former GOP Sen. Mel Martinez’s seat–he’ll be a rare conservative Latino on the national stage. And he’ll be among a crop of young Republican candidates that pundits believe could transform a party now dominated by Southern, white men into one that can compete for the longterm in a multiracial America. 

Know, however, that Rubio doesn’t take too kindly to being called the "Republican Obama." Rubio admits that Obama’s personal story is compelling and, in some ways, similar to his own–he’s a young candidate who bucked conventional wisdom and rose quickly to the top of the state party’s ticket. And he’s a first-generation Cuban-American son of working-class immigrants who fled Fidel Castro. But Rubio’s politics couldn’t be more different from Obama’s.

An attorney who grew up between Miami and Las Vegas, Rubio rose quickly through Florida’s House of Representatives because of his uncompromisingly conservative stances. He was first elected in 2000, at the age of 28, and was soon taken under former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s wings. In 2006, he was elected as the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House.

Despite all his early accolades, Rubio was considered a long shot when he announced his run for U.S. Senate in May of 2009. That’s because his top Republican primary contender was popular Gov. Charlie Crist, who was expected to forgo another run at the state’s top office for his own senatorial bid. Known as a career moderate, Crist often pushed for lower taxes and fiscal restraint while occasionally endorsing a more progressive social agenda.

At first Crist’s moderate stance seemed a perfect match for a state like Florida, whose voters were often unpredictable. He even had a 30-point lead over Rubio in early polls.

But then the Tea Party grew steam. Angry white voters began drawing mainstream attention and, from Scott Brown in Massachusetts to Nikki Haley in South Carolina, their influence on American politics became inescapable. While Rubio never openly courted Tea Party supporters, his unrelenting conservative stances certainly fell in line with their rhetoric. He endorsed Arizona’s SB 1070, opposed the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, and even after the BP oil disaster, remains a strong supporter of offshore drilling.

"My parents lost their country to a government!" he exclaimed at a rally in West Palm Beach last year. "I will not lose mine to a government!"

His family’s history with Catro’s Cuba recurs when Rubio beats the anti-government drum. Earlier this month, Rubio lashed out at Senate Democrats for expecting Latinos to vote for them. Majority Leader Harry Reid, who’s working to save his own job in Nevada, had remarked during a campaign event that, "I don’t know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican." Rubio told Politico the statement was "outrageous" and "ridiculous." He continued:

The reason why Americans of Hispanic descent should be Republicans is that the Democratic leadership is trying to dismantle the American free enterprise system, the only system in the world where parents like mine who work hard and play by the rules can give their children the opportunities they themselves did not have.

Tea Partiers have been all for it, and early in the primary he was dubbed a Tea Party "darling."

"Rubio may not be 100 percent of everything we want," Tea Party supporter William Temple, told Newsweek in February. "but he’s what we’ve got for now, so we’ll support him." Temple , a historical-reenactment actor, had showed up to the first national Tea Party convention in Nashville dressed in full Revolutionary era garb.

In the middle of all this, Rubio not only rallied in the polls, but pulled off the unthinkable by forcing Crist out of the Republican Party. Sensing the wave of rightwing populism Rubio was riding, Crist decided that he had a better chance of winning the race as an Independent, positioning himself as a viable alternative to two parties plagued by incompetence.

Slowly, Crist’s move seems to be working. Recent polls put him slightly ahead of Rubio with likely voters who seem turned off my Rubio’s hardline conservatism, and even Democrats who don’t see Rep. Kendrick Meek as a viable contender. The Tea Party’s begun collapsing in on itself and, by and large, the white American psyche seems to be shifting away from political extremism. This is especially the case in Florida. As Arian Campo-Flores wrote for Newsweek last month:

Campaigns are won along the state’s midriff, from Tampa to Orlando, where swing voters reside in abundance. Florida is "generally a centrist place," says Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant based in Tallahassee. "When either party pushes out one way or another, voters tend to whack them back to the middle."

This doesn’t mean that Rubio’s a sitting duck, but his platform is far weaker than it was six months ago. Right before this week’s Republican primary, he had already begun veering away from the Tea Party script.

"The solution isn’t just to paralyze government," he told the New York Times. "Vote for us because you couldn’t possibly vote for them? That’s not enough. It may win some seats, but it won’t take you where you want to be."

He’s already angered some of his Tea Party base by distancing himself from the party’s rhetoric, and in his victory speech after winning the state’s Republican nomination for Senator, he didn’t once mention the Tea Party. "Marco Rubio owes his position to the Tea Party, the 9/12 groups and the other grassroots groups," Florida Tea Party activist Robin Stublen told the Daily Caller.

We’ll see how much support Rubio’s able to muster headed into November. One thing’s certain: Rubio’s going after his two opponents with a lot of steam. He’s already announced that he wants seven televised debates with Meek and Crist to prove his case to voters.