Ru­bio re­brands as main­stream Repub­li­can

Win vi­tal for sav­ing ma­jor­ity in Se­nate GOP sen­a­tors try­ing to avoid get­ting pulled down by Trump

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY S.A. MILLER BY TOM HOW­ELL JR.

TAMPA, FLA. | Al­most em­bar­rassed out of pol­i­tics by his pres­i­den­tial run, Sen. Marco Ru­bio has made a re­mark­able turn­around, and now is poised to win a sec­ond term in the U.S. Se­nate — along the way also trans­form­ing him­self from tea party hero to es­tab­lish­ment fa­vorite. The same Repub­li­can vot­ers who over­whelm­ingly re­jected him in Florida’s pres­i­den­tial pri­mary in March, end­ing his run and pos­si­bly his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, now her­ald him as the sav­ior of the GOP’s Se­nate ma­jor­ity.

“He’s not old enough to run for pres­i­dent and he’s not skilled enough to run for pres­i­dent, but we need him to keep the Se­nate,” said Edith Wess­ner, 70, a reg­is­tered Repub­li­can who cast her ear­lyvot­ing bal­lot for Mr. Ru­bio and Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump at a pub­lic li­brary in South Tampa.

Repub­li­cans have grown in­creas­ingly con­fi­dent about a Ru­bio vic­tory over Demo­crat Patrick Murphy, which is vi­tal to their ef­fort to save the thin 54-seat ma­jor­ity in the 100-mem­ber Se­nate amid fears that Mr. Trump is dam­ag­ing the party’s down­bal­lot can­di­dates.

The Demo­cratic Party, al­though its con­gres­sional cam­paign arm with­drew fi­nan­cial sup­port of the Murphy cam­paign last week, re­mains con­fi­dent that a Se­nate takeover is within reach thanks to new tar­gets pop­ping up.

In the fi­nal weeks of the cam­paign, Democrats have tar­geted races that were not com­pet­i­tive be­fore Mr. Trump shook up the elec­torate map to the detri­ment of Repub­li­cans.

Democrats are eye­ing de­feats of once rel­a­tively safe Repub­li­can Sens. John McCain in Ari­zona, Roy Blunt in Mis­souri, Richard Burr in North Carolina and Daniel Coats in In­di­ana, where GOP vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Mike Pence is gov­er­nor.

Mr. Ru­bio, whose fierce pri­mary fight with Mr. Trump de­volved into trad­ing in­sults, has stuck by his en­dorse­ment of the New York bil­lion­aire. But Mr. Ru­bio has dis­tanced him­self from Mr. Trump, whose fal­ter­ing cam­paign prompted wide­spread de­fec­tion from GOP lead­ers.

In the same way, Trump vot­ers said they re­mained loyal to Mr. Ru­bio.

Mr. Murphy, a sec­ond-term con­gress­man whose south­east Florida dis­trict stretches from Fort Pierce to Palm Beach, has ag­gres­sively ar­gued that Mr. Ru­bio is closely tied to Mr. Trump, blast­ing him for not pulling his en­dorse­ment.

“De­spite call­ing Trump a ‘con man’ dur­ing their pres­i­den­tial pri­mary days, Ru­bio has en­dorsed Trump as the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee. Even after women came for­ward to share their sto­ries of Don­ald Trump’s sex­ual as­saults, Ru­bio con­tin­ues to stand by him,” the Murphy cam­paign said in a state­ment this week as Mr. Trump made a cam­paign swing through the state.

The Murphy cam­paign asked when Mr.

Sen. Pat Toomey, a Repub­li­can locked in a tense re-elec­tion bat­tle in Penn­syl­va­nia, is now run­ning ads spot­light­ing dis­agree­ments with his party’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump and per­sonal praise from the Demo­cratic vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee.

In Ne­vada, con­gress­men Joe Heck rep­re­sents the GOP’s only hope for a Se­nate pickup this cy­cle, but he wouldn’t even tell a lo­cal news­pa­per this week who he plans to vote for in the pres­i­den­tial race.

And while Repub­li­can sen­a­tors Marco Ru­bio of Florida and John McCain of Ari­zona slammed their Demo­cratic op­po­nents this week for stand­ing by Oba­macare in the face of soar­ing pre­mi­ums, nei­ther of them pointed to Mr. Trump as their flag-bearer for re­form.

The flood­gates have bro­ken open and GOP in­cum­bents are jump­ing off the Trump band­wagon, hop­ing to avoid get­ting pulled down by the whirlpool of bad polls sur­round­ing the GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee.

That in­cludes back­ing off at­tacks on Mrs. Clin­ton. Mr. Ru­bio urged his party to stop us­ing Clin­ton cam­paign emails pub­lished by Wik­iLeaks as a po­lit­i­cal cudgel. And last week he un­veiled a “Democrats for Marco” coali­tion, ar­gu­ing vot­ers will opt for the “best can­di­date” for Se­nate no mat­ter who they sup­port at the top of the ticket.

“A grow­ing num­ber of Democrats are voic­ing their sup­port for Marco,” his cam­paign web­site said. “Democrats know how Ru­bio would ap­pear be­side Mr. Trump.

Mr. Ru­bio never joined him on the stump.

The at­tack mostly threat­ened to un­der­mine Mr. Ru­bio’s ef­forts to woo Democrats and in­de­pen­dents.

“If he hadn’t gone with Trump, I prob­a­bly would have voted for him,” said in­de­pen­dent voter Bill Young, 64, a re­tired im­por­tant it is that Marco is re-elected to act as a check and bal­ance in the Se­nate re­gard­less of who the next Pres­i­dent may be.”

In Penn­syl­va­nia, where Mrs. Clin­ton leads Mr. Trump by an av­er­age of 5 points, Mr. Toomey may need a num­ber of cross­over vot­ers to win re-elec­tion. So he has tied him­self to the Demo­cratic ticket, run­ning an ad with Sen. Tim Kaine, Mrs. Clin­ton’s run­ning mate, prais­ing the Repub­li­can sen­a­tor’s “se­ri­ous­ness, in­tel­lect and ci­vil­ity.”

“It’s an im­por­tant dif­fer­ence be­tween the can­di­dates: Pat Toomey has shown in­de­pen­dence and lead­er­ship, while [Demo­cratic chal­lenger] Katie McGinty would be a rub­ber stamp for Hil­lary Clin­ton and the party bosses who hand-picked her for the Se­nate,” Toomey spokesman Ted Kwong said.

GOP can­di­dates are chaf­ing at the idea of a Clin­ton pres­i­dency while treat­ing it as a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity, and even Mr. Trump ap­pears to be look­ing be­yond Nov. 8.

He’s given up on for­mal fundrais­ing and will fo­cus on pub­lic events dur­ing the last two weeks of the cam­paign, his fi­nance chair­man told The Wash­ing­ton Post. That means the mogul won’t be bring­ing in big bucks for down-bal­lot GOP can­di­dates, ei­ther, though the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee said it is spread­ing money around.

“The RNC con­tin­ues to fundraise for the en­tire GOP ticket,” com­mit­tee spokes­woman Lind­say Wal­ters said.

Last week, Mr. Trump spent valu­able cam­paign time in D.C. tout­ing one of his own achieve­ments — mor­ph­ing the Old Post Of­fice Pav­il­ion on Penn­syl­va­nia busi­ness­man. “Was on the fence, and that was the de­cid­ing fac­tor.”

Mean­while, Repub­li­can vot­ers gave Mr. Ru­bio a pass on his re­align­ment from tea party to party es­tab­lish­ment.

“In my opin­ion, he hasn’t change so much. He got rail­roaded in the pri­mary,” said Matthew Bern­ing, 51, a re­tired U.S. Air Force tech­ni­cal sergeant who voted early for Av­enue into a lux­ury ho­tel that bears his name.

At the same time, Mrs. Clin­ton cel­e­brated her birth­day in Florida by pair­ing at­tacks on Mr. Trump with a sales pitch for Demo­cratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, who is trail­ing in his bid to un­seat Mr. Ru­bio.

“One of the best gifts you can give your­selves would be send­ing Patrick Murphy to the United States Se­nate,” Mrs. Clin­ton said.

Over the week­end, she slammed Mr. Toomey in Pitts­burgh for fail­ing to dis­avow Mr. Trump de­spite the mogul’s stri­dent com­ments on Mex­i­can im­mi­grants and women.

Yet for his part, Mr. Toomey has mainly fo­cused his at­tacks on Ms. McGinty and not Mrs. Clin­ton.

Kyle Kondik, man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of Sa­bato’s Crys­tal Ball at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, said Se­nate Repub­li­cans in many of th­ese swing states have been able to run ahead of Mr. Trump. But if the mogul loses by more than Mitt Rom­ney did in 2012 — about 4 points na­tion­ally — “there may be too much of a drag for many of them to sur­vive.”

Mrs. Clin­ton has a 4-point lead in the lat­est polling out of New Hamp­shire, where Mrs. Ay­otte is vir­tu­ally dead­locked with Demo­cratic chal­lenger Mag­gie Has­san, the sit­ting gov­er­nor.

The Repub­li­can, who’s po­si­tioned her­self as an in­de­pen­dent voice for Gran­ite Staters, fur­ther dis­tanced her­self from Mr. Trump after the re­lease of a 2005 “hot-mic” tape fea­tur­ing the mogul’s lewd re­marks about women, say­ing she could no longer vote for the mogul. Mr. Ru­bio in Val­rico, Florida, a fast-grow­ing com­mu­nity about 15 miles east of Tampa.

After win­ning his Se­nate seat as a tea party cham­pion in 2010, Mr. Ru­bio of­ten broke with con­ser­va­tives, most con­spic­u­ously when he joined the bi­par­ti­san “Gang of Eight” sen­a­tors who pro­posed amnesty for il­le­gal im­mi­grants as part of a com­pre­hen­sive im­mi­gra­tion bill.

That helped pi­geon­hole him as an es­tab­lish­ment fig­ure by the time he ran for the White House, while Mr. Trump’s pop­ulist cam­paign eclipsed the tea party and con­ser­va­tive move­ments.

Fol­low­ing his washout in the pres­i­den­tial race and a be­lated run for re-elec­tion to the Se­nate, Mr. Ru­bio more fully em­braced GOP es­tab­lish­ment po­si­tions, such as aban­don­ing fis­cal re­straint to back spend­ing $1.1 bil­lion tax­payer dol­lars to fight the Zika virus with­out bud­get off­sets.

“He’s not a real con­ser­va­tive. But he’s bet­ter than the to­tally non­con­ser­va­tive, com­mu­nis­tic Democrats,” said Ed­ward Gato, who voted for Mr. Ru­bio in Val­rico.

The 72-year-old re­tired Army cap­tain ac­knowl­edged that Mr. Ru­bio had changed since his tea party days.

“He’s mel­lowed out a lit­tle bit. He’s not as an­gry as he should be,” said Mr. Gato. “He’s learned how the sys­tem works, and he’s us­ing it.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Fol­low­ing his failed bid for pres­i­dent, for­mer tea party dar­ling Sen. Marco Ru­bio is cruis­ing to a likely re-elec­tion, and is seen as key to help­ing the GOP main­tain its Se­nate ma­jor­ity.

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