Sen. Marco Rubio reversed course Wednesday and announced that he will be running for reelection after all.
After his unsuccessful presidential campaign, Rubio had planned to exit the Senate, likely for the private sector. This decision set up what was until recently a five-way competitive Republican primary for his seat in the chamber.
I have only said like 10000 times I will be a private citizen in January.— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) May 17, 2016
Lately, though, Republican elites have been increasingly afraid of losing the Senate — particularly with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. And the Florida seat looked like one of their most vulnerable ones. All five of those GOP candidates to replace Rubio seemed unimpressive and were viewed as likely to lose to Rep. Patrick Murphy, the likely Democratic nominee.
When asked by Fox News’s Chris Wallace to explain his decision, Rubio said, "No matter who wins this presidential election, the Senate’s role of being able to act as a check and balance on bad ideas from the president, I think, are gonna matter more in 2017 than they perhaps ever have in our history."
And in a statement announcing his decision that was harshly critical of Hillary Clinton, Rubio added that the prospect of a Trump presidency is "also worrisome to me." He added: "His positions on many key issues are still unknown. And some of his statements, especially about women and minorities, I find not just offensive but unacceptable. If he is elected, we will need Senators willing to encourage him in the right direction, and if necessary, stand up to him. I’ve proven a willingness to do both."
Yet Rubio’s hopes to mount another presidential campaign in 2020 have surely weighed heavily on his mind too. Such a bid could be easier to launch if Rubio remains prominent in the Senate, criticizing the new administration, rather than fading away by going to the private sector.
Of course, to get that platform he has to actually win.
The implications of Rubio’s decision
Several of the other Republican primary contenders are expected to drop out to clear the way for Rubio’s nomination — one, Rep. David Jolly, already has, and Rep. Ron DeSantis and Lt. Gov. Carlos López-Cantera will likely follow. The two other candidates — wealthy self-funding developer Carlos Beruff and businessman Todd Wilcox — have said they’ll stay in the race, but it’s clear Rubio is the overwhelming favorite to win his primary in August.
The general election is a different matter. Polls have tended to show Rubio doing better against Murphy (the Democratic establishment’s preferred nominee, who still has to win his own primary against liberal firebrand Rep. Alan Grayson) than the other GOP candidates were. But he’s not that far ahead, particularly when you take into account his advantages of incumbency and name recognition.
Furthermore, Rubio could face serious partisan headwinds with Trump at the top of the ticket that could drag him down — particularly if Hispanic voters turn even more strongly against Republicans this year. And he will, of course, have to walk a common tightrope for GOP candidates this year in deciding how to respond to whatever outrageous thing Trump says next.
So the decision to run is actually rather risky for Rubio. He could very well lose, and if he does, a 2020 presidential campaign would be a very tough sell indeed. Indeed, Democrats will spend heavily against Rubio in hopes that a defeat by Murphy will end his political career and remove a top threat to a potential Clinton reelection campaign in 2020, as CNN’s Manu Raju reported.
But throughout his career, Rubio has proven willing to take risks like this. Sometimes they pay off, like when he first challenged Gov. Charlie Crist, the Republican Party’s preferred candidate, for this very Senate seat six years ago. As the fate of his presidential bid shows, though, sometimes they don’t.