Rubio rebrands as mainstream Republican
Win vital for saving majority in Senate GOP senators trying to avoid getting pulled down by Trump
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.”
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.