Marco Rubio once looked like the Republican savior over immigration.
Now, to some conservatives, he seems as trustworthy as a door-to-door salesman.
From the right-wing talk-show hosts to local activists at town halls, many conservatives say they’re upset that Rubio’s talk and deeds conflict over comprehensive immigration reform.
“The problem is he sold this based on talking points,” said Jason Hoyt, an Orlando tea party activist, summing up the discomfort many conservatives have with the Florida Republican senator.
“He had four or five talking points, which sounded pretty good,” Hoyt said. “But then we saw the bill, and it was 1,200 pages of detail. And then there was article after article after article about how bad the bill was.”
So it’s not just policy (implementing a path to citizenship, increasing border security) that’s the problem. It’s trust.
It’s not that Rubio is perceived as two-faced. It’s that he has too many faces, the equivalent of a computer program that updates with the political mood:
• Rubio2008: The Florida House Speaker whose chamber squashed state-based immigration reform. At the time, he said immigration was a federal responsibility.
• Rubio2010: The upstart, long-shot candidate, who bested one-time Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, took a hard line on immigration and generally called a pathway to citizenship a mistaken “amnesty.”
• Rubio2013A: A future White House hopeful who rode a wave of positive media coverage to become, in Time magazine’s words, the Republican savior after the party was drubbed nationally in the 2012 elections. The bipartisan bill he helped hammer out contains what many conservatives see as “amnesty.”
• Rubio2013B: The establishment Republican who now barely talks immigration, unless he is asked about it during select interviews with friendly media or at little-advertised town hall-style meetings. Rubio wants to talk about his effort to defund Obamacare instead.
“He may win us back with that because that’s probably the worst thing,” Glen Leirer, a Panama City conservative told the Associated Press after a mid-August meeting there with Rubio.
During that meeting, Rubio responded to a question about his support for the immigration bill by noting all the woes with the existing system.
“If I presented that to you as my immigration plan, you would say that’s a terrible plan. That’s what we have right now,” he said. “What we have in place now, in many ways, is the de facto amnesty that I ran against.”
But Rubio didn’t run against “de facto amnesty.” His statements in debates and to reporters at the time show his words and tone were notably different in 2010.
In a debate, Rubio suggested illegal immigrants need to leave the country and then apply for citizenship. When a reporter asked whether that was “de facto amnesty,” Rubio didn’t answer, but later said “ ‘earned path to citizenship’ is basically code for ‘amnesty.’ ”
Now he backs an earned path to citizenship but says it’s not amnesty.
In The Shark Tank Blog, a South Florida conservative site that backed Rubio in 2010, commentator Javier Manjarres has criticized Rubio’s handling of immigration and his low-key tour of the state this month. The blog noted fellow GOP senators fighting Obamacare — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Mike Lee — were holding multiple events about the issue while “Senator Marco Rubio is missing in action.”
Check out Friday’s Americans for Prosperity tea party summit in Orlando for a reason Rubio isn’t so out in the open (he’s also a dad trying to spend time with his kids, it should be noted). When Rubio spoke, the one-time tea party darling was heckled by some immigration activists. Some wore badges that said, “Pink Slip Rubio.”
Compare that to the reception received by Cruz, of Texas, in Rubio’s home state. Toward the end of his speech, The Palm Beach Post reported, the crowd of about 1,500 chanted, “Run, Ted, run!”
Rubio still remains popular among Republicans and conservatives, however. He received more cheers than boos Friday.
Two national surveys, one from conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports and one from ABC News this summer found that Rubio’s favorability ratings dropped by double digits. This could be natural attrition for any politician, or it could be the effects of immigration reform and, especially, the hits he took from the conservative media elite who panned Rubio.
But in Florida, Quinnipiac University’s poll showed Rubio’s Republican support rock solid and essentially unchanging at 81 percent over the past few months.
Henry Kelly, an Okaloosa County tea party activist, said he wasn’t sure how deep or how long-lasting the damage to Rubio would be. He chalked up a lot of opposition to what he calls the small but vocal “Unreasonable Faction, those who say that, ‘If you’re not with us 100 percent, you’re our enemy.’ ”
Kelly also pointed out that, during a trip to Washington at the height of the conservative backlash over the immigration bill, Republican activists from outside Florida gushed over Rubio.
“Where there may be lasting damage to Rubio,” Kelly cautioned, “is whether people continue to trust him. He has a whiff of Charlie Crist: ‘I’m for it if you’re for it.’”
There’s also a good chance that what Rubio lost on the far right he can make up for in the political center.
But immigration hardliners like Mark Krikorian, a leading critic of Rubio in the National Review, say the senator’s problems could transcend immigration policy.
“People feel he lied to them,” Krikorian said. “They feel he tricked them. They expected this from Sen. John McCain, but not Rubio. He was supposed to be different. He isn’t.”