The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 9
- Rubio’s successful relaunch
- 43-year-old senator overshadows Hillary, shakes up GOP field
- Two incumbent senators — one in each party — already trail early for re-election
To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso
Marco Rubio: Well, who ever said staged events don’t matter? Under the right circumstances, they can do quite a bit for the right candidate, as last week’s events demonstrate.
Contrary to expectations that Hillary Clinton‘s canned Sunday announcement would overshadow Rubio’s
speech, things turned out to be quite the opposite. Rubio put a merciful end to discussions about her arrow-H logo and her secret trip to Chipotle. And within days, at least one poll had him overtaking Jeb Bush in a primary poll of their shared home state of Florida.
Some have talked about Rubio as a Republican version of Obama. The description is not entirely inappropriate. Yes, he has more experience than Obama had before his 2008 run, but that’s not the important part of the comparison. Rubio has so far shown signs that he is, at the very least, not seriously deficient in any of the three most important characteristics we watch for in political candidates: discipline, intelligence, and charisma.
In politics, discipline is part humility, part prudence. It includes an ability to stay on message, manage one’s brand properly, and take direction from campaign professionals who know how it’s done — an especially important part of Reagan’s success that Robert Novak always attributed to his decades as an actor. The bottom line is that discipline means one can avoid unnecessary or stupid mistakes that distract or set a candidate back.
Intelligence fits the commonplace definition of the word — both smarts and the appearance of smarts.
Charisma is the quality that makes candidates seem relatable, likeable, charming and even uplifting when they speak. It makes you want to like them, even if you don’t already. Mrs. Clinton’s Iowa trip perhaps reminds everyone that a candidate with charisma doesn’t have to pretend to be human or understand ordinary people’s concerns (or to be meeting with “ordinary people”). They also don’t have to avoid answering direct questions from the press — including even hostile journalists. Rubio’s effortless ability to get audiences to like him and even laugh at his impromptu jokes and to hold his own in Spanish-language Univision interviews suggests that charisma won’t be a problem for him.
A candidate who has two of those three political virtues can compensate for the absence of the third. He can win a big election and perhaps even become president under the right circumstances — Bill Clinton famously lacked discipline (in more than one way), George W. Bush at least seemed less than razor-sharp, and George H.W. Bush was never known for his charisma. But a candidate who has all three is quite rare indeed — a real rock star, and perhaps an overnight sensation, much like Obama became in 2008. With his rollout, the 43-year-old Rubio has shown early potential to become one of these rare birds. Time will tell, though — discipline especially requires a lengthy testing period.
Rubio’s relative youth helps his cause in terms of charisma — especially in a race where the Democratic nominee will likely be pushing 70 years old. Rubio’s remarks identifying Clinton with the past — “yesterday is over” — will surely become a refrain of the eventual GOP nominee, assuming it isn’t the 62-year-old Jeb Bush. The fact that he is both Hispanic and (unlike Ted Cruz) a fluent Spanish-speaker cannot hurt either.
None of this is to say that Republicans will automatically accept Rubio ideologically or prefer him over the other strong candidates in the field — only that he clearly has the skills it would take to win a general election. Some Republicans (and crossover voters) will like Rubio from the start, so he is guaranteed a core of support. But it’s also likely that many non-Rubio Republicans are watching at this point and wishing he could be just a bit more them in his views, because he’d be just the right guy if he was. Within this group lies his potential for growth.
Nowadays, with the rise of ISIS, Russian aggression, and the threat of a nuclear Iran, it is possible that fewer Republicans will be put off by Rubio’s hawkish foreign policy views than might have been, say, a year ago. The bigger challenge Rubio faces will be on immigration. But even here, he will be running in a GOP field where he can point to the same weakness in most or all of his competitors. Bush, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Rand Paul and even Cruz have all been called out for comments in favor of granting some kind of legal status to millions of illegal immigrants — “amnesty,” as some would have it. The “amnesty but only after border security” position is quickly becoming a majority position even on the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Rubio’s answer on his own flip-flop on immigration has so far been that his legislative work on immigration reform taught him that border security must come first. This is not at all unlike the reasoning John McCain offered in 2008 on the way to winning the GOP nomination. And of course, it was enough for him to win.
The long and the short of it is, a lot of people were counting Rubio out until very recently. They’re not doing so any more. It goes to show what a candidate with strong skills can do when given the opportunity to reintroduce himself to the electorate.
Colorado: In a year when Republican pickup opportunities are few and far between, this is a race they can’tafford to lose to poor recruiting. Sen. Michael Bennet, D, is extraordinarily weak, with a recent Quinnipiac poll putting him behind Rep. Mike Coffman, R, 43 to 40 percent. Coffman, who has been holding down a swingy congressional seat in the Denver suburbs, has not yet decided whether to make a go of it.
Bennet, recall, only narrowly escaped defeat in 2010 against a weak candidate, Ken Buck. His approval ratings are actually a bit stronger than usual in the poll mentioned above — he has never been popular since his appointment to the job after Sen. Ken Salazar, D, left to become Secretary of the Interior.
Florida: Rubio has made clear he will not be running for re-election, no matter what happens in his presidential race. And the Republican field has been left wide open as the two most likely and perhaps strongest candidates — Attorney General Pam Bondi and state Treasurer Jeff Atwater — have ruled out running. That leaves nearly a dozen possible candidates, including a few other statewide officials — most notably Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam (a former congressman), Lieutenant Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera — and several Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Rep. Ron DeSantis, R, is shaping up to be the choice of conservative outside groups, with both the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives’ Fund encouraging him to run. That doesn’t guarantee him anything except the cash to be competitive in a primary. But one has to like the early chances of a conservative favorite if the field remains crowded.
Democrats may have their own ugly primary here. The consensus establishment candidate is Rep. Patrick Murphy, D, a prolific fundraiser and former Republican (until 2011) who has held down a Republican-leaning Treasure Coast district since 2012, but Orlando-area Rep. Alan Grayson, D, is reportedly planning a bid, emboldened somewhat by the lack of a top-tier Republican candidate. Grayson, who lost his seat in 2010 and returned to Congress thanks to redistricting, is a lightning rod with a messy personal life (which, in fairness, is not entirely his fault). He is probably too abrasive and too ideologically extreme to win a general election statewide. But can he win a Democratic primary in a state with an amazingly weak Democratic Party, against a former Republican? At least don’t count him out.
Nevada: Harry Reid’s retirement leaves Republicans with one of their two main pickup opportunities. Republicans are largely waiting to see whether Gov. Brian Sandoval, R, runs, as this will determine whether and what sort of GOP primary there will be. In the meantime, though, Reid’s hand-picked opponent, former Attorney General Catherine Cortez-Masto, does not have a glide-path to the nomination, and might in fact be an underdog in the primary. An early poll shows Las Vegas Rep. Dina Titus, D, trouncing her, 44 to 20 percent. Titus lost the race for governor in 2006 before taking over the seat previously held by 2012 Democratic Senate candidate Shelley Berkley.
Another note: Regardless of Republicans’ apparently waning presidential prospects in the Silver State, it is worth remembering that Berkley lost that 2012 race narrowly to Sen. Dean Heller, R, despite President Obama’s 6.5-point victory.
Pennsylvania: Democrats still have not found a top-tier challenger for Sen. Pat Toomey, R, despite a well-publicized desire to prevent former Rep. Joe Sestak, D, from receiving the nomination again. Sestak’s 2010 loss, after his anti-establishment run in the primary against former Sen. Arlen Specter (by then a Democrat) didn’t make him popular, but with Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane facing possible indictment on official oppression and perjury charges, they have yet to find a plan B.
Plan C appears to be the mayor of Toomey’s adopted hometown of Allentown, Ed Palowski, who got into the race last week and will begin campaigning this week. He is definitely the underdog in the primary. Toomey’s chances have to be liked in the general at this point.
Despite the widely expected loss by Gov. Tom Corbett, R, in November’s election, the Keystone State has been trending Republican (its legislature is at a historic Republican peak) and could be a serious presidential target next year for the first time since 2004, when George W. Bush made a serious effort and lost it by only 2.5 percentage points (145,000 votes). The reasoning is that with Obama off the ticket and the state’s middle and west becoming increasingly Republican, Philadelphia might fail to deliver the Democratic nominee the enormous margins necessary to guarantee a statewide win.
Wisconsin: Ron Johnson is living up to his reputation as the most vulnerable incumbent Republican senator. A new poll from Marquette University Law School (the same poll that accurately called Scott Walker’s wins) has him trailing Russ Feingold in a rematch of 2010 that seems very likely to happen, 54 to 38 percent. That number is unspeakably abysmal for an incumbent, even if one argues that this particular poll is an outlier.
It suggests that a Johnson win will require both an unexpectedly strong Republican presidential performance in his state and a great deal of his own money. Perhaps a miracle as well. Johnson is the clear early underdog in one of the races that will determine whether Republicans can hold the U.S. Senate into the new presidency.