The Marco Rubio Phenomenon

Last Spring I was considering blogging about Marco Rubio’s run for the U.S. Senate in Florida, but decided against it.  I’m a Floridian, so it’s interesting to me, but I thought he was too much of a long shot to be of much interest to people outside of Florida.  Now, Rubio appears to be the hottest Senate candidate nationwide.

Some background: Rubio is running for the Senate seat formerly held by Republican Mel Martinez.  Martinez decided he’d had enough of the Senate in 2008, and not only wasn’t running for reelection, he was resigning his seat in mid-term.  His replacement, George LeMieux, appointed by Governor Charlie Crist, was a long-time aide and friend of Crist’s.  LeMieux is not running to keep his seat, but Crist is running for that seat.

Crist, finishing his first term as governor, decided that rather than run for reelection he would run for what amounts to an open Senate seat, now occupied by his friend who appears to be just a place holder for Crist until the November election.  Meanwhile, Jim Greer, another Crist buddy and until a few weeks ago head of the Republican Party of Florida, not only supported Crist for Senate, but told other Republicans they shouldn’t run.  Interparty competition would just weaken the Republican candidate in the general election.

Marco Rubio, former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, was term limited out of office two years ago, and announced he was also running for that Senate seat.

Rubio looked like a long shot, running against a fairly popular governor with lots of name recognition state-wide and support of the state’s party.  As Speaker of the House, Rubio certainly has some background in politics, but not nearly as much name recognition (until recently).  Everybody knows the governor; few people know the Speaker of the House.

Now I notice Rubio getting lots of press in national outlets.  I’ve seen a number of stories about Rubio that don’t mention he’s running against Crist, but it seems like whenever a story about Crist appears, the story mentions that he’s running against Rubio.  (The stories never mention Kendrick Meek, the front-runner among Democratic candidates.)

The buzz on Rubio comes from two sources.  First, he’s a Cuban-American whose parents fled the Casto regime.  Second, and more substantially, he’s a very committed fiscal conservative.  I’ll stop short of calling him a libertarian, but (1) there’s lots for libertarians to like about Marco Rubio, and (2) he holds firm to his principles.

Despite the name recognition advantage, in straw poll after straw poll Rubio has been beating Crist, and that has thrust him from an almost-unknown to prominence.  This  happened because the people who vote in early straw polls are better-informed, and liked Rubio better than Crist.  My perception is that Crist is a populist who will take any position he believes will get him more support, whereas Rubio is a committed fiscal conservative who has principles and lives by them, which Republicans who voted in early straw polls liked.

Now the press is treating Rubio as at least a credible candidate, and maybe the front-runner for the Republican nomination, and that press coverage is giving Rubio more visibility, both state-wide and nationally.

Rubio is still behind Crist in fundraising, but Rubio’s rise is something those who favor more limited government should note.  If he wins the Senate race he will look like a giant killer, and will be a credible presidential candidate in 2016.

From a distance it appears that Rubio is a lot like President Obama, notwithstanding their very different political views.  Both rose out of nowhere, apparently, and as a Hispanic minority Rubio, like Obama, will appeal to the “diversity” crowd.  If Rubio wins the Senate that parallel will surely be noted.

But Rubio and Obama differ in more than just their political views.  While Obama was a community organizer, Rubio served eight years in the Florida House of Representatives, the last two as Speaker, until he was term-limited out of office.  Rubio was a tough and principled leader as Speaker.  He held firm to his ideals, and I give him much credit for holding the line on Florida’s state government expenditures as revenues fell throughout the recent recession.  While he was Speaker, he set the fiscal agenda more than Governor Crist.

If Rubio looks attractive at a distance to those who favor limiting government, he should look even more attractive once people get to know him.  His candidacy is picking up steam, even as Crist’s appears to be falling apart.  The odds look good that he will not only be Florida’s next U.S. Senator, but also will become a visible proponent for limited government on the national stage.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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