WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has found himself in a spot he's not used to: the target of conservative ire.
The one-time Tea Party hero and Republican face of the Senate's bipartisan immigration legislation has been combating negative press from conservative media outlets, like Breitbart News, since the moment the bill was introduced.
But the opposition's singular focus on Rubio has confounded some in Republican circles, who believe the GOP infighting is counterproductive, dangerous for the party's image, and unnecessarily harsh toward a young conservative star who could be the next Republican president.
"We could have had a bill that was crafted by [Sen.] Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), or we could have a guy like Marco fighting his tail off in the Senate trying to make sure we didn't end up with a bill that was a Democratic party wish list," said Florida based Republican strategist Rick Wilson. "I'm all for calling out the stupid. But [conservative critics] are engaging in some red on red fratricide that is both unnecessary and dangerous and will have a net result that is negative for Republicans and conservatives."
Never mind that the so-called "Gang of Eight" has four Democratic members: Right-wing bloggers and columnists such as the Washington Examiner's Conn Carroll, the Daily Caller's Mickey Kaus, a conservative Democrat, and reporters at Breitbart have set their sights on Rubio explicitly because he is the conservative face of the bill.
"He's been the point man anointed to sell the bill to the right and the right are the only people that are going to stop this horrible bill," Kaus said. "Democrats aren't going to do it."
Last week, the Tea Party Patriots staged a "D.C. intervention" in part aimed at Rubio's work on the immigration bill, and likening it to the health care law. That led Rubio to send them a letter saying, "there is absolutely no truth to the idea I will support any immigration legislation that is rushed through Congress in typical Washington fashion."
Breitbart has run several stories recently attacking the bill, honing in on a provision that provides satellite phones to people living along the southwest border. The provision, Republican senate aides argue, gives residents in rural border areas access to satellite phones to report border violence. But citing a conservative Florida blogger, Breitbart reporter Matthew Boyle wrote last week the bill "contains a lucrative handout that would give taxpayer-funded free cell phones" to people.
Breitbart's Mike Flynn blared a headline Sunday: "'MARCOPHONE' PROGRAM COVERS AREA INCLUDING 200K SQ MILES, 7+ MILLION PEOPLE, OPEN-ENDED FUNDING."
On Monday, Boyle wrote a story headlined "SECRET EMAILS: CATO, NORQUIST, RUBIO USE BOSTON TERROR ATTACKS TO PUSH IMMIGRATION REFORM." The e-mails showed suggested ways to speak about immigration reform, in light of the Boston attacks, from Rubio's office to the Cato Institute and Americans for Tax Reform.
To Jon Gabriel, a conservative activist and blogger at FreedomWorks, focusing the intense conservative attacks on Rubio — instead of just the bill, or the other lawmakers who have worked on it — makes no sense.
"I don't even have a firm position on the bill — there are things I like, and there are things that I would question," Gabriel said. "Oppose the bill on policy not personality. And if you are looking at this politically and you have to identify a 'bad guy' maybe you make it someone from the other team?"
"It's a circular firing squad that Republicans are famous for, we're eating our young," Gabriel added. "To not only try and oppose him on one issue but also just destroy him seems counter productive."
Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, said that Rubio was "sticking his neck out" for conservative immigration policy.
"If it weren't for Sen. Rubio this wouldn't even have a chance, it's a complete risk and if he wasn't there we wouldn't have a lot of the conservative ideas that we do have in the bill," she said. "He wants good policy and what's coming out of the Senate is some of the best we've ever seen.
Wilson took aim at Breitbart News for its anti-Rubio campaign.
"These are guys who want Andrew Breitbart's legacy to be taken seriously and running with a story that was demonstrably false that was given to them by a fourth-rate local blogger in South Florida, it doesn't exactly show that they are holding themselves to a standard," Wilson said. "Their big critique of the liberal media is oh, they pick and choose and cherry pick things and they selectively edit… Well, you know they are doing the exact same thing they project on everybody else and they are doing it specifically for the purposes of clickwhoring."
Joel Pollak, editor of Breitbart News, showed no signs that the site would ease up on Rubio any time soon.
In a statement to BuzzFeed, Pollak wrote, "Sen. Rubio enjoys enormous respect among conservatives and was given a great deal of leeway at first. As more details of the bill have emerged, however, it has become clear that he cannot deliver on his promise to achieve security first. In addition, the rushed process is a repeat of Obamacare. Increasingly, Rubio is representing the 'Gang of 8' to conservatives, rather than representing conservatives to the 'Gang of 8.' Rubio has in many ways made himself the 'face' of the bill by making it a signature issue and, among other things, appearing on a record seven talk shows in one day to promote it. In 2010, Rubio was elected over Charlie Crist because conservatives wanted to fight the go-along-to-get-along establishment. Hence growing concern about his support for this fatally flawed, 844-page bill that we are told must be passed within a few weeks."
Breitbart isn't alone in its aggressive prosecution of Rubio's plan. Almost daily, Kaus can be found on Twitter egging on Rubio chief of staff Cesar Conda and spokesman Alex Conant. Carroll regularly refers to the bill as the "Schumer-Rubio bill," a reference to a guy Republicans love to hate, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Carroll has consistently argued the bill is merely "legalization now for promised border enforcement later."
Carroll and Kaus both charge that the bill is amnesty for the country's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, and that Rubio and his staff are either willfully misleading or do not understand the bill's provisions.
"I have no animus towards Rubio… If he went out in a straightforward way [and said], 'We need amnesty and we are going to spend all this money on border enforcement' that would be one thing, but that he has fake border triggers that are trying to con conservatives seems unfortunate. And then if you have to wonder, how much does Rubio know what's actually in the bill," Kaus said.
Rubio, meanwhile, has gone into overdrive defending the immigration reform bill on conservative talk radio, television shows, and his staff sends out flurries of "fact-checking" press releases every day.
"When our critics are just wrong about the bill, we're quick to set the record straight," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said. "We want people to know what's in the bill and, just as importantly, what's not in the bill."
And to be sure, Rubio's pitch has been received well by other skeptical conservatives like Sean Hannity and radio host Mark Levin.
"Rubio is a talented politician with tons of good will built up among conservatives. And I give him tons of credit for making the effort to reach out to conservative media," Carroll wrote in an email to Buzzfeed. "He is a huge asset for pro-amnesty Republicans."
But the campaign blitz hasn't exactly swayed Carroll either.
"I've been calling it Schumer-Rubio. That's not an accident. Also, Schumer has not been the one calling Schumer-Rubio opponents, 'hysterical.' That has been Rubio's job," he wrote. "There is clearly a campaign by pro-amnesty forces to brand all conservatives who oppose amnesty as racists. Rubio, unfortunately, appears to be leading that campaign."