WASHINGTON — Just two years after becoming a U.S. senator in 2011, Marco Rubio shot to the top of early polls for the Republican presidential nomination.
Over the next few months, he began a precipitous decline into the single digits, where he remained when he declared his bid to become the first Hispanic American president Monday at the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami.
What happened at that critical juncture? In 2013, the Florida senator teamed up with Democrats to write and pass a sweeping (but ultimately doomed) bill that included a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. The fateful decision will loom large for the talented 43-year-old politician in the coming year — perhaps large enough to affect the outcome of the nomination fight, and with it, the presidency.
Eventually Rubio came out against his own bill and returned to his hardline opposition to reform, demanding stronger border security before anything else. (The timeline below explains his complicated evolution on the issue.)
But will Republican voters forgive him? A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that 70 percent of GOP voters want the next president to oppose a path to citizenship. The issue is guaranteed to come up in the primary particularly given the crop of competing hard-right candidates like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, both of whom voted against the bill.
Last week, Rubio ally Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who was also elected in 2010, said Rubio’s immigration vote was a cause for “concern” among conservatives.
“Rubio remained a favorite of the grassroots until he tried to cut a deal with the Democrats on immigration. To his credit, he went on Rush Limbaugh’s program to defend it. He made aggressive outreach to conservatives behind the scenes. But it hurt him and the deal died,” wrote Fox News contributor Erick Erickson, adding that he still “has a real shot” at the nomination.
The immigration debate was rough for Rubio. He sustained relentless attacks from the right including a cover story entitled “Rubio’s Folly” in the National Review. He was even heckled by conservatives. The issue marked his decline from an early frontrunner to the mid-single digits.
(Chart via the New York Times.)
Rubio has since been all over the map on immigration reform, having now returned to his hardline opposition to reform until border security is substantially beefed up, a move that has softened some criticism on the right, but ironically may alienate influential pro-immigration Republicans.
“Sen. Rubio will have to earn some voters back, but he is well positioned to do so given his commitment to innovative conservative policies and his recognition that the amnesty-centric approach to immigration is the wrong approach,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for the conservative group Heritage Action.
GOP elites believe the nation’s changing demographics mean the nominee must support reform to be competitive in the 2016 election. “This issue is not just the right issue but a smart issue…for winning the presidential campaign,” former Mitt Romney fundraising chief Spencer Zwick told reporters recently. He continued to say that big GOP donors won’t give to a candidate who doesn’t support immigration reform. But he mentioned Jeb Bush, not Rubio, as an example of how to lead on the issue.
If past is prologue, GOP voters won’t disqualify a candidate who’s seen as pro-immigration, argued former Republican National Committee spokeswoman Liz Mair, pointing out that John McCain won the nomination in 2008. “[T]he tricky thing for Rubio is that he was made the face of the lengthy and intricate Senate immigration bill specifically,” she said in an email. “There will certainly be people in the party and outside of it who feel they simply cannot vote for him because they want 12 million people deported here and now, and Rubio does not.”
Mair said some voters will also remember that debate as a sign that Rubio can “get in over his head and overestimate his capabilities as a salesman.”
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recently cited the Florida senator’s “immigration apostasy” as his biggest liability in 2016, but added that “his current enforcement-first position has wide appeal.”
Here’s a timeline of Rubio’s 360-degree evolution on immigration.
2010 Senate campaign: Rubio opposes the DREAM Act
A long-shot tea party Senate candidate, Rubio took a strong stance against reform by campaigning against the DREAM Act, the immigration issue du jour, in his debut on the national stage. He reaffirmed that opposition after he was elected, though he expressed some sympathy for children brought to the country illegally by their parents, for whom the act would have permitted citizenship.
U.S. Senate candidates Marco Rubio, left, and Charlie Crist during their debate, at the studios of WFTV, Oct. 6, 2010 in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Joe Burbank, Pool)
“As I’ve said before, obviously there are children who are brought here by their parents when they were very young, illegally, but who are high academic achievers or want to serve in the Armed Forces and we should figure out a way to accommodate children in that specific situation,” Rubio told the Tampa Bay Times on November 19, 2010. “But the DREAM Act, as I have read it, goes well beyond that. It’s much broader and is not the right approach to that issue.”
Spring 2012: Rubio warms up to a DREAM-like solution
By the spring of 2012, Rubio was trying to persuade his party to support some sort of program to help undocumented immigrants brought as children. He began drafting a narrower version of the DREAM Act that would grant nonimmigrant visas — without the promise of citizenship — to some prospective beneficiaries of the act. Party leaders were publicly skeptical, given the intense conservative opposition to any such move. “I don’t want to be unrealistically optimistic about it,” Rubio said in April 2012, per the New York Times. He added: “I have not been discouraged by anybody in my party.”
What Rubio hadn’t counted on was getting undercut by President Barack Obama, who in June announced a new program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that would bypass Congress and use his executive authority to defer the deportation of certain young people and grant them two-year work permits. The Rubio effort was quashed, and he was not pleased.
Post-election evolution: Rubio embraces reform
Within days of President Barack Obama’s resounding reelection victory largely due to the support of 72 percent of Latinos, various senior Republicans decided it was time for immigration reform. Including Rubio. Boosted by calls from elites and prominent conservative commentators like Krauthammer to embrace “amnesty,” Rubio teamed up with bipartisan reformers including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to hammer out a sweeping plan to overhaul legal immigration and establish a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.
Sen. Marco Rubio, flanked by Sen. Charles Schumer, left, and Sen. John McCain, right, speaks about immigration reform legislation as outlined by the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” on Thursday, April 18, 2013, on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Pro-reform advocates questioned Rubio’s support for the “gang of eight” measure in some difficult moments where he appeared to be hesitating. But the Floridian stayed the course and voted for the bill, which passed on June 27 by a whopping margin of 68-32, capturing 14 Republicans. His efforts seemed to have paid off, and the goal was within reach.
Fall 2013: House GOP kills reform, Rubio throws in the towel
Unfortunately for Rubio, the conservative base mounted an aggressive and successful lobbying effort to persuade the Republican-led House of Representatives to kill the entire effort. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) quashed the Senate bill within moments of its passage and promised to take up his own approach, although in the coming months the GOP caucus made clear it lacked the appetite for immigration reform. The slow and painful death caused Rubio to back off his own legislation and call for reform in a piecemeal manner as opposed to one comprehensive bill.
That October, his chief spokesman told TPM that “sufficient support for that approach simply does not exist at this time” and that “the only approach that has a realistic chance of success is to focus on those aspects of reform on which there is consensus through a series of individual bills.” It was precisely the sort of backtracking that conservatives were looking for. They had won. The cause of reform was dead, never to be resurrected in the 113th Congress.
Summer 2014: Child migrant crisis pushes Rubio hard right
Rubio’s resolve against immigration reform hardened in the summer of 2014 when the government reported a large uptick in the number of children crossing the Southern border illegally into the U.S., many of them fleeing gang violence in Central America. By August, Rubio came full circle against reform and stood firmly with the hard right for more border security before any other changes.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. at a committee hearing in Washington, March 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
In a prepared statement on July 31, Rubio said that “my experience over the last year and a half has convinced me that the only way we will ever have the votes necessary to address every aspect of our immigration problems, including modernizing legal immigration and addressing the status of those currently here without legal status, is to first address border security and the enforcement of our laws. This is true now more than ever due to the ongoing crisis on our southern border with the arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors.”
Fall 2014 and beyond: Rubio wages war on ‘executive amnesty’
In the fall, Rubio came full circle to re-embrace his hardline position against reform, turning his attention to battling Obama’s new plans announced in November to expand his 2012 initiatives to protect nearly 5 million people from deportation. And so it has been since. “I honestly believe that the key to moving forward on immigration is to first and foremost prove to the American people that we are going to bring future immigration under control,” Rubio told NPR on Monday, the day he declared his run for president.
With prospects for legislation dead during Obama’s presidency, and the 2016 campaign on the horizon, Rubio has since made opposition to Obama’s executive actions a central component of his immigration outlook. That has tamped down the conservative criticism.
But will it be enough? Time will tell.