Marco Rubio didn’t win Monday night in Iowa.
And no, a third place finish cannot be spun hard enough into a victory.
But for the Republican establishment, Rubio’s solid third place in Iowa, clearly in the top tier with Ted Cruz and Donald Trump gives the party a way forward that doesn’t pose the general election risks of the bombastic billionaire or the the uberconservative Texas senator.
The GOP now has a plausible establishment candidate to rally around. Whether it takes advantage of the window of opportunity presented by Rubio’s better-than-expected showing in Iowa will be a story written next week in New Hampshire and the week after that in South Carolina.
But as uncertain as the path forward may be with Rubio, it provides establishment Republicans with an argument and now they can make the case.
“I will be our nominee, thanks to what you have done here in this great state,” Rubio said Monday night when he delivered a speech touting his performance. “When I am our nominee, we are going to unify this party, and we are going to unify the conservative movement. When I’m our nominee, we are going to grow the conservative movement.”
Rubio was not expected to garner more than 20 percent of the vote in Iowa, but he did. He finished with 23 percent of the vote, just a little more than a percentage point behind Donald Trump, who had been forecasted to win outright in Iowa. After months of stories about Rubio being on the cusp of his breakout moment, but mostly teetering along in the middle double digits in polls, it finally happened. Rubio, who rode the tea party wave into the Senate in 2010, has emerged as the establishment’s best chance of taking down Trump or Cruz.
The so-called establishment lane has been crowded for months as Rubio has tried to elbow out Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich for support and high-profile donors. Attack ads have flown among the establishment-class candidates as each has tried to assume dominance over the others.
Adding to his momentum as caucus tallies were rolling in, news broke that South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (R) was also planning on endorsing Rubio before the crucial South Carolina primary.
Of course, Rubio will have to hustle to keep himself relevant heading into New Hampshire. His moment may be coming too soon.
“The time for the Republican establishment to unite is before New Hampshire,” says Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist.
There is very little chance that Christie, Kasich or Bush would bow out for the good of the party just as they are on the cusp of their own best chance of an early contest victory.
On Monday night, Christie, Kasich and Bush were not even in Iowa, they had not put up formidable enough challenges to break out beyond three percent of the vote there. They’d all moved on and put their energy into betting their campaign resets in New Hampshire.
But, if all four candidates –Rubio, Kasich, Bush and Christie– stay in the race, it could make it very difficult to knock down Trump or Cruz. The most recent CNN poll showed that Trump and Cruz stood in first and second place respectively.
“You can foresee a scenario where they all continue to push off the moment of reckoning,” Mackowiak says. “And, the later that moment occurs, the less the party unity matters.”