When all eyes turned to New Orleans, I thought, finally, things will change.
Photos by AP Images
My hunt for Marco Rubio supporters began in October in the heavily urbanized swamplands of Miami-Dade County, the presidential candidate’s homeland. My main question: Could Rubio save the GOP from its third consecutive humiliating defeat in the quadrennial struggle for the White House?
For Rubio to do so, he’ll have to win Florida, the swing state with the most electoral votes and home to an eclectic Hispanic population that is a swing demographic in presidential elections. Because of his multiple identities—Floridian, Hispanic, Generation Xer, Republican, and U.S. Senator—Rubio would seem to fit the GOP bill.
Rubio, forty-four, is well-groomed, articulate, has a nice smile. He self-identifies as a Christian, conservative, and football fan (Florida Gators). He’s white but also the son of Cuban immigrants and constantly honors his parents’ humble labors as a maid and a bartender. He says he wants to ban abortion, terminate the Affordable Care Act, reduce taxes, ease gun regulations, scuttle the nuclear deal with Iran, and expand the military. He criticizes President Obama a lot.
Even before the hunting season began, dark blue “Florida is MARCO RUBIO Country” signs had started appearing on chain-link fences. But polls of likely Republican primary voters were indicating that Florida was actually DONALD TRUMP country, with The Donald consistently ahead of Rubio in the polls. The Sunshine State is home to six Trump residential skyscrapers, two of his golf course hotel resorts, and his Mar-a-Lago Club of Palm Beach—“The Greatest Mansion Ever Built.” The question is: Can Marco Rubio even win the Florida primary?
When you hunt, you go where the game might be. But when I began my quest, there were no Rubio rallies on the Florida horizon. His gaggle of advisors, led by Terry Sullivan (an aide to North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in the 1990s and campaign director for South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint in the 2000s), had the candidate on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, and Colorado, scrambling to goose up his percentages in those key early caucus and primary states.
Trump, however, was a presence. On a Friday evening in late October, he stomped to a podium on a ballroom stage at the Trump National Doral golf resort. About 300 people, mostly male and white, an even mix of Hispanic and non-Hispanic, had packed into the ballroom. Soon after the candidate started speaking, two or three Latino college students began chanting “Equality! Equality!” before being drowned out with shouts of “USA! USA! USA!” and escorted out of the building by cops. Later shouts of “Dignity! Dignity!” and “Respect! Respect!” were likewise shouted down. One Trump enthusiast dragged a protester to the ground by the back of his shirt collar and kicked him in the gut.
But the major news of the night—and probably more worrying to the Rubio camp—was the presence of enthusiastic Trump supporters of Hispanic origin. When Trump said, “You know who wants to stop illegal immigration more than anybody? The Hispanics who are legally in this country!” the crowd roared its approval.
Afterward, in the balmy darkness outside the hotel, I got a taste of anti-Rubio bitterness among Hispanic Republicans. “I’ve campaigned for Rubio before, but he’s moving very slowly,” an elderly woman told me in Spanish, “and Clinton has moved very rapidly.” She noted that, like Rubio, Barack Obama was an unknown when he first ran but “shot up” in the polls and “mobilized the vote.” She is pleased that Obama has used his power to “give residency to immigrants, above all to the Dreamers, so they could continue to study.” And she also likes Donald Trump. She admires Trump for building a business empire, and feels he has gotten a bad rap.
“They’re campaigning against Trump as if he doesn’t like immigrants,” she said, insisting he is only down on those who kill people and deal drugs. She is disappointed that Rubio hasn’t adopted a “Latin attitude” when it comes to immigration reform, especially the Dream Act, which would grant legal residency to millions of foreign minors in the United States (neither has Trump).
I logged this new voter profile: elderly Hispanic female, pro-Dreamer and pro-Trump. I soon found another: sons of immigrants who are anti-migrant, pro-Trump, and anti-Rubio. In a large patio area outside the hotel, I found twenty-six-year-old public adjuster James Dee and thirty-two-year-old real estate lawyer Saul Escobar, both Cuban Americans, leaning back in chairs, reflecting on Rubio.
“My problem with Rubio is that it sounds like he has everything memorized when he talks,” Escobar said.
“He’s a puppet,” Dee replied.
Escobar noted the similarity between Rubio’s slogan—A New American Century—and the name of a neoconservative think-tank, Project for a New American Century, which advocated using U.S. military power to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
“One of my biggest problems with Rubio is that his foreign policy is crazy,” Escobar exclaimed. “He’s being advised by the same people who advised Bush, and devised the invasion of Iraq, which has been a total failure and destabilized the region, and it’s costing us more, and it’s killing people.”
Escobar thinks Rubio isn’t sufficiently concerned about cutting the federal budget, especially when he talks about increasing military spending. “Another thing I hate about Rubio is that he’ll say Obama’s gutted the military. The military spending has gone up every year,” Escobar added.
And then there’s the career politician thing. “What’s he ever done in his life other than run for office?” Escobar asks.
Dee scoffs that Rubio is just another member of Congress who gets lucrative campaign contributions in exchange for helping “international corporations” bring foreign workers into the United States, “even though it screws us citizens over and depresses our wages.”
Since there were no Rubio events, I went to a midday book signing by Ben Carson at a Barnes & Noble in suburban Kendall, an unincorporated suburb in Miami-Dade County. There, I encountered a different breed of Republican voter.
“I don’t think I could vote for Trump. Maybe if somebody got me drunk and held my hand,” a woman who described herself as the wife of a retired U.S. diplomat told me outside the store entrance, signed book in hand. She wouldn’t give her name, but did offer that she was a Virginia native, and that her son-in-law and one of her dearest friends are Cuban American. Yes, she had detected reluctance in the Cuban community to back Rubio. “They think he’s kind of young,” she explained.
I asked if she would vote for a Carson-Rubio ticket. “Yeah,” she said, “because I like them both.”
Inside, two lines of men and women waiting to see Carson filled the aisles. I found the end of one line and chatted with Sara, a Colombian Cuban American who works as a community college administrator. “I don’t like that Marco is so inexperienced,” she confided. “I don’t think his heart is in the wrong place, so I don’t think he’d do a bad job, necessarily. But it would be like just another young guy that’s not ready.”
I was starting to get the picture. Rubio is not necessarily on solid ground in his hometown. I needed to broaden my search—to the first-ever Sunshine Summit, a candidate showcase and fundraising event staged by the Republican Party of Florida in Orlando. Rubio and thirteen other Republican contenders had signed up to speak. Florida’s March primary could play a climacteric role in the battle for the nomination. What better landscape than a sprawling hotel teeming with Republicans—in the heart of the sunniest swing state’s swingiest region, the Interstate 4 Corridor—to sweep for answers?
On a Friday morning in mid-November, after a four-hour trip up the Florida Turnpike, I strolled through the lobby of the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel, a burnt-orange, Mediterranean Revival monstrosity not far from Disney World, and down an airy indoor promenade. A line of dressy men and women (who’d paid $200 for a regular ticket and $500 for a VIP pass) stretched to a rotunda, where a metal detector awaited them.
Wadi Gaitan, the Florida GOP’s twenty-seven-year-old Honduran-American communications director, was elsewhere, but one of his young lieutenants promptly credentialed me. (I was relieved: Two male aides for U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, including Rand Paul’s current campaign communications director, Sergio Gor, once barred me from a re-election rally inside her district office, citing my work for The Progressive.)
I found a seat in the humongous Persian-carpeted ballroom. State party chairman Blaise Ingoglia opened the event, joking that it was Friday the Thirteenth and nothing could be scarier than Hillary Clinton in the White House. He offered some refreshing self-criticism, though, saying that while the party has had a “marketing” problem regarding Hispanics and blacks, “the only demographic to blame is us.”
Another state rep introduced Rubio, the first presidential candidate slated to speak. He hustled out amid polite applause and began reciting the messianic, hyperbolic, and doom-laden speech he’s been delivering all over the country.
“The last seven years have been a disaster under Barack Obama....Our economy simply doesn’t grow....The federal government is not the answer to every issue before this country....A trillion dollars in defense cuts await us....The world is more dangerous than it’s ever been in my lifetime....We are gutting our military capability....Our allies do not trust us, our adversaries do not respect us....We have a President who treats the prime minister of Israel with less respect than what he gives the ayatollah in Iran.”
The crowd clapped, some cheered, and a few rose to their feet.
“God has blessed America with oil and natural gas. Let us use it fully....If you believe all human life is worthy of protection, you’re labeled a bigot or a hater.... Religious liberty is not just the right to believe whatever you want, it’s the right to exercise it in every aspect of your life, at work and at home....Gun laws fail everywhere they’re tried....Our people have the right to defend themselves, their property, and their family!”
The crowd clapped and cheered again.
“The principles we stand for are the only way to recapture the greatness of this nation and expand it....The stakes could not be higher. For we are running out of time....We are on the road to decline.”
Rubio had words for almost everyone in the twenty-first century GOP’s extended family—the hawks, the gun freaks, the pro-lifers, the tax cutters, the Koch brothers, even sensitive-to-the-poor Republicans.
“The men and women who will clean the rooms at this hotel tonight, the people who will serve your food at lunch or park your car, will they be able to leave their children better off than themselves?” Rubio asked. “That is what we must decide. That is what our party must be about.” He pledged that the American Dream will thrive, and the twenty-first century will be better than the one before. “It will be a New American Century.”
When his speech was over, Rubio thanked his audience, lingered in the applause, and left the stage.
The next presidential contender to speak was Ted Cruz, the Cuban American senator from Texas. The crowd was rapt, slightly more than it was for Rubio. It was easy to see why the two were neck-and-neck in Florida and elsewhere. Cruz’s main foreign policy difference with Rubio, as far as I could tell, was that instead of canceling the nuclear deal with Iran, he’d “rip it to shreds!” Contrasts on economic policy were subtler.
While Rubio blamed the federal deficit on both parties, Cruz pointed to “bipartisan corruption in both parties.” Whereas Rubio said new tax rules are “strangling creativity,” Cruz would “padlock” IRS headquarters and send its 90,000 employees to the U.S. border with Mexico.
Jay, a tall sixtyish man in a dark suit who identified himself as a small business investor, was thrilled with Cruz’s speech. “He’s a brilliant man,” he said. “Checked his background. Very impressive. Talented. Principled. Conservative.” Rubio, he allowed, “is also a fine speaker. Different style. Both passionate, principled people. I would prefer Ted Cruz.”
Later that afternoon, Jeb Bush, the state’s former governor, took the podium. After opening with some disparaging remarks about Hillary Clinton, Bush implored his fellow Republicans to “stop talking disparagingly about people,” which I took as a jab at Trump. Most striking was Bush’s talk about the need to rebrand the GOP as the party that helps the poor “not with a handout but a hand up.”
“The most vulnerable in our society should be at the front of the line,” Bush said. “We’re going to win elections by being on the side of people who want to be lifted up.”
I met Deanna Ortner, a middle-aged financial advisor from the Winter Park area north of Orlando, handing out “Jeb!” materials after his talk. Ortner, who labels herself a grassroots Republican and a “libertarian conservative,” dislikes Rubio’s defiant reaction to allegations that he misused a credit card issued by the Florida Republican Party and double-billed the state for travel expenses. “Right now he doesn’t think he has a problem with that,” she observed.
Asked about Hispanic voters in particular, Ortner said: “What I know, from knocking on doors, is that a lot of Hispanic voters really like Jeb. They like his experience. They feel that Rubio is not quite ready, that he needs more experience.” There it was again.
Eventually, though, I found Republicans who were enthusiastic about Rubio. These included Veronica, an eighteen-year-old summit volunteer whose mom is Puerto Rican and dad is Ecuadoran. “I feel like his immigration policy is, just because of his background and cultural experience—it’s a lot more realistic compared to some of the other candidates,” she said.
Standing next to her was Sam, another eighteen-year-old volunteer, who said she was the granddaughter of Polish immigrants. “Florida as a swing state is very important for the Hispanic voters,” she said. “And I think Marco Rubio is the perfect fit for them. It really gets them off, like, the Democrat side, because they can relate to Marco Rubio.”
“Yeah,” replied Veronica.
Down the foyer Chely Hernández-Miller, a more seasoned Cuban American volunteer, told me her first pick was Rubio. “He just reinforces what I’m thinking, and it’s not because he’s Cuban. Because Cruz is Cuban, and I don’t agree on a lot of things Cruz is supporting and proposing.” She thinks Cruz pushes his own religion “too much” and dislikes his attempt to paint Rubio as backing amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
“I agree with Marco and other politicians that there should be some kind of process if you’re a law- abiding citizen, if you have a job, if you’ve been out of trouble,” she said. “I don’t feel there’s any way that we can send twelve million people back to where they came from. At what cost? Who’s going to pay for it?” she asked. “The people who have been in jail, that are criminals, dealing drugs and stuff, I would send them back for sure.”
Hernández-Miller is president of the Hispanic Republican Club and Outreach of Pinellas County, which encompasses the St. Petersburg and Clearwater area, where she teaches at a private middle school. Her business card says: “Republican Values = Hispanic Values.” But that equation doesn’t correspond to voter behavior in the I-4 region over the past two presidential seasons. Here, support for Republicans is slowly retreating due to an influx of newly registered Democrats, especially Puerto Ricans.
Would getting more Hispanic immigrants to register Republican translate into more support for Rubio? “I don’t think it’s a given,” Hernández-Miller said candidly.
Day one of the summit concluded with evening speeches by Trump and Carson, each of whom afterward spent many minutes at the front of the cordoned-off VIP section surrounded by swarms of admirers and selfie-seekers. Zeal for those two was undeniable. So was this: There was no groundswell of support for Rubio in his home state. At least not yet.
The other news was that Rubio appears to have a grassroots problem. Before leaving the Rosen Shingle Creek, I stopped at the Headwaters Lounge, where I happened to meet Michael Barnett, the first black GOP chairman in Palm Beach County. He told me Rubio had shunned invitations to speak at his chapter’s events. “He only talks to donors,” Barnett grumbled, shaking his head disappointedly. In contrast, Barnett noted that Jeb Bush has made inroads among the largest immigrant population in the Palm Beach area, Haitians. “Trump is doing more grassroots than anybody in Palm Beach County,” he said, not entirely kidding. “He lives there.”
Three weeks later, on a Saturday morning in early December, Rubio appeared at an invitation-only fundraiser at a community center in West Miami, the lower middle-class area where he grew up and served on the city commission for two years. It was an empanada-and-coffee breakfast organized with the help of Cuban American county commissioner Rebeca Sosa’s local political network. Minimum donation just $20.
Having deftly customized his stump speech, Rubio added a sweet anecdote about meeting his wife, Jeannette, in a nearby park, and some fresh invective for Obama. “You have an anti-American communist dictatorship 90 miles from our shores, and an administration that cuts deals, one-sided deals, that give them everything they want—the Castro regime—and asks for nothing in return.” People clapped and booed.
Rubio had to shore up his hometown Republicans, to be sure. But with all he has to accomplish—in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, on top of a relentless GOP debate schedule—when can the New American Centurion start outmaneuvering Trump on the ground in Florida? He is running out of time.
From the February issue of The Progressive Magazine.