Marco Rubio has been one of his party’s brightest rising stars. On Tuesday evening, he became an earth-bound asteroid.
The freshman Florida senator’s disastrous underperformance in his home state likely ends his presidential ambitions. Worse for Rubio, it could imperil his political future.
In a season that saw several other emerging Republican talents shredded in the buzzsaw of Donald Trump’s campaign, Rubio’s collapse stills stands out. On paper, he presented as storybook: Young, telegenic, with a family story personifying American striving that Rubio, a gifted communicator, spun beautifully. And in a fractious period for the party, he seemed uniquely suited to unite the GOP’s warring factions.
But Rubio’s campaign never did the hard and expensive work of assembling the state-by-state grassroots organization key to grinding out primary victories. Perhaps more fundamentally, his message — a blend of uplift and traditional Republican policy proposals like tax cuts and a muscular foreign policy — proved musty with base voters eager to hear their anger reflected back at them.
Delivering what amounted to a concession speech to a meager crowd in Miami, Rubio offered a qualified acknowledgment of his campaign’s shortcomings that also took oblique aim at Trump. “America’s in the middle of a real political storm, a real tsunami. And we should have seen it coming,” he said, later adding, “From a political standpoint, the easiest thing to have done in this campaign is to jump on all those anxieties I just talked about. To make people angrier, to make people more frustrated. But I chose a different route and I’m proud of that. In a year like this, that would have been the easiest way to win. But that is not what’s best for America.”
The details of Rubio’s Florida loss make it look even worse for him. Over the past three weeks, with GOP establishment alarm belatedly rising at the prospect of a Trump nomination, major party donors finally began investing in a campaign to stop him. A tally by FiveThiryEight shows that among three of the most targeted states — Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina — the Sunshine State received a disproportionate share, 88% of the total ad spend. That number is particularly stark considering Ohio only received 3%. The Buckeye State represented the other must-win front for those hoping to hobble Trump’s march to the nomination. And there, Gov. John Kasich winning Ohio, according to CNN projections, with no thanks to much outside help.
Rubio now returns to the Senate to finish a term that expires at the end of the year. He decided to forego a reelection campaign, which he could have waged concurrently, to focus on his presidential bid. There remains the possibility he could end up on a presidential ticket, though it’d be tough to imagine Donald Trump, whom he’s trashed, or Ted Cruz, whom he too nearly resembles in too many categories, choosing him as a No. 2. Florida Gov. Rick Scott faces a term limit in 2018, which would open another statewide office to Rubio. But Tuesday evening’s results show he’s got fences to mend at home if he hopes to resurrect a career in public life there.