Marco Rubio’s path to winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in Florida would not have been possible without the ardent backing of Tea Party activists. But you wouldn’t know that by listening to his victory speech Tuesday night.
The Republican candidate, who easily won the GOP nomination Tuesday and will face independent Gov. Charlie Crist and Democrat Rep. Kendrick Meek in November, thanked his wife, his parents and God during his victory speech. But he did not mention the Tea Party or thank the grassroots activists specifically.
Does this mean Marco Rubio’s general election strategy includes cooling down his Tea Party rhetoric?
“Marco Rubio owes his position to the Tea Party, the 9/12 groups and the other grassroots groups,” said Robin Stublen, a Tea Party activist who founded the Punta Gorda Tea Party in Florida. He said the notion that Rubio is moderating his Tea Party speak is “100 percent correct,” though admitted he still fully supports the Tea Party-backed insurgent.
In the Sunshine State’s unique general election this cycle — that includes a serious independent challenge — Rubio’s strategy is obvious: win over enough votes of moderate Republicans and independents who might be drawn to Crist while keeping the Tea Party energy on his side. Crist, the early front-runner, left the GOP to run as an independent in the race after Rubio became a Tea Party darling.
A New York Times reporter recently traveled with Rubio as he campaigned on the Florida panhandle and penned a profile of the former state House speaker, writing that Rubio “is trying to show that he is more than just an insurgent protest candidate—and he is breaking with some Tea Party orthodoxy in the process.”
Rubio’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests to interview Rubio or return requests to describe the campaign’s strategy going into the general election. Yet the always-on-message Rubio projected himself Tuesday night as a measured politician focused on presenting GOP alternatives, rather than as an angry Tea Partier without any ideas. “I am not running to be the opposition…I believe there is a better way to do things,” he said.
While other grassroots, conservative backed candidates have appeared to embrace the Tea Party label, Rubio often dodges the question of whether he considers himself a Tea Partier. Asked the question recently, he said, “I think there is a real misunderstanding about what the Tea Party movement is. The Tea Party movement is a sentiment in America that government is broken – both parties are to blame – and if we don’t do something soon, this exceptional country will be lost and it will become just like everybody else.”
He also, for example, has been non-committal about whether he’d join a Tea Party caucus in the Senate if elected.
Perhaps it’s an effective strategy, as Democrats have not been able to successfully portray him as outside the mainstream like they have done with other Republican Senate candidates this election cycle, like Sharron Angle in Nevada, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Ken Buck in Colorado.
But, at the same time, he’s certainly not abandoning the message that attracted the grassroots activists to his campaign. In his speech Tuesday night he told the assembled crowd that, “If you like the direction that America is headed, if you think Washington is doing the right thing, then there are two other people on the ballot and you should go for one of them.”
A PPP poll released Tuesday shows Rubio in his strongest position since Crist ditched the Republican Party to run as an independent. The poll has Rubio at 40 percent, followed by Crist’s 32 percent and Meek’s 17 percent.
The poll noted that undecided Republican voters — who may have been tempted to support Crist — are largely moving into Rubio’s camp. “Many Republicans were up in the air between Crist and Rubio previously but whatever they’ve seen over the last month has moved them more firmly into the Rubio column,” the PPP’s analysis of its polling results read.
Part of Rubio’s rise can also be attributed, according to the poll, to Democrats coming together to support Meek over Crist. “As Democrats have gotten to know Meek over the course of the primary campaign they’ve generally decided they like him and that’s cut into Crist’s support for the general election,” the PPP poll analysis explained.
On Tuesday night, Meek weathered millions in campaign ads against him, handily defeating billionaire candidate Jeff Greene for the Democratic nomination.