WASHINGTON — The casual reader of conservative news sites and blogs could be forgiven for thinking immigration reform has doomed Sen. Marco Rubio’s once promising career and status as presumptive frontrunner for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination.
He’s been called a “traitor,” a “turncoat,” and a “RINO” — a slur specific to conservative circles standing for “Republican In Name Only.”
But conservatives in Congress say that while they may hate his comprehensive immigration bill — which passed the Senate Thursday by a resounding 68 to 32 margin — it’s way too early to count the first term senator out.
Rubio’s full-throated push for the bill “may influence some people right now, but right now is not 2016,” Sen. Chuck Grassley said. Grassley, the dean of Iowa’s Republican Party and an opponent of the bill, argued that come Caucus time, Iowans probably won’t hold the immigration bill against Rubio.
“I think that people are going to be looking at how who can win the White House. I think that’s going to be the most important thing” to voters.
A veteran Senate Republican aide agreed, arguing that in fact the attacks he’s suffered from conservatives in recent months could help define him less as a simple conservative and more a conservative-minded legislator.
“He’s got an extremely conservative voting record,” the aide, who has worked on House and Senate campaigns noted, adding “getting beat up by [Sens. Jeff] Sessions and [Ted] Cruz will help him.”
The aide pointed out it has helped endear the Floridian to many of his Senate colleagues, who may have been suspicious of the young, ambitious Tea Party darling who elbowed his way into their midst. Indeed, one Republican senator reportedly voted for the bill in part because of Rubio and his potential as the party’s 2016 standard barer.
Rep. Dennis Ross, a Florida Republican, said he believes that while Rubio will recover, he acknowledged the attacks from fellow conservatives are frustrating.
“I’m sure it’s something he can recover from. My concern is that people like me and people like Sen. Rubio who have consistently been conservative voters on almost all issues, can find ourselves under attack on a one issue basis and when you think about it, you might as well have a Nancy Pelosi protégé replacing him in Florida if all they are going to be concerned about is one issue,” Ross said.
“It’s unfortunate the criticism, but he understands once he moves the ball over here he’ll recover with the right wing, and they will still want him here to preserve lower taxes, less government and more individual freedoms,” Ross added.
Other conservatives however warned at the least, being tied to the bill can’t help Rubio once the election begins in earnest. “I certainly think in a Republican primary you don’t want to be the guy who supported amnesty,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp said.
Conservatives are also only now beginning to wake up to the immigration fight. With action shifting to the House — where Rubio’s bill is unlikely to even be taken up — conservatives are preparing to make their last stand. If the fight is drawn out for weeks and months, and Rubio is forced to engage with House conservatives, it could solidify the notion that he may not be as ideologically pure as some had thought.
Rubio’s supporters may also be banking on conservatives having a short-memory — something the movement has repeatedly demonstrated it does not, in fact, have. Case in point: conservative distrust with Mitt Romney’s past dogged him throughout last year’s campaign, and Sen. John McCain’s work on the issue crippled his support amongst many base voters in 2008.
Indeed, conservatives are already warning that Rubio will likely face immigration ads
in early primary states come 2016.
Even those close to Rubio are clearly worried conservative infighting could hurt him.
“Everyone has ups and downs … I never count anyone out,” Rep. Trey Radel said.
“Marco Rubio’s voting record is one of the most consistently conservative records in all of the United States Congress. This is the problem, when conservatives start to eat their own. It’s like Ronald Reagan said: When you agree with someone 80 percent of the time it does not make them 20 percent enemy, something like that,” Radel added.