WASHINGTON -- Sen. Marco Rubio has lost standing among conservative activists for his lead role in immigration reform but continues to collect millions in campaign dollars, emerging as one of the most prolific fundraisers in the country and underscoring his national ambitions.
Wednesday, the money chase continued when the Florida Republican appeared at a barbecue restaurant alongside some of Washington’s top lobbyist-fundraisers. Admission ranged from $500 to $10,000.
Rubio this year alone has raised more than $5 million — a mix of small-dollar donations from average folks across the country to $5,000 checks from corporate interests — which he has poured into a team of strategists and to expand a national fundraising network.
“If you want to be president, you hire political consultants, fundraisers. People who work on your brand. That’s pretty clear what he’s done,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan authority on campaign finance.
Rubio’s operation has stoked such speculation because so little has been spent on supporting other candidates, the ostensible purpose of committees such as his Reclaim America PAC. In 2011-12, he gave candidates just 4 percent of the PAC’s collections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Rubio’s team counters that it took money and time to build the operation and pointed to an uptick in help to other politicians, more this year than any other senator. In May, Reclaim America spent more than $100,000 on a TV ad defending New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte against gun-control critics (bonus: she’s from the first-in-the-nation primary state).
He also contributed $30,000 for ads against Sen. Mark Pryor, a vulnerable Democrat in Arkansas up for reelection next year. On Tuesday Rubio endorsed Tom Cotton, the Republican facing Pryor, and emailed a fundraising solicitation.
Rubio plans to support four or five Senate candidates, said Terry Sullivan, an operative who oversees Reclaim America. He noted that Rubio’s support often comes in the form of appearances on behalf of other candidates, including dozens for Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee.
“This year he’s redoubled his efforts to help conservative candidates and causes,” Sullivan said. “You’ll continue to see him use the Reclaim America PAC to travel the country campaigning with and raising money for other conservative candidates.”
On Monday, Rubio raised money in Richmond, Va., for gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli. The payoff for Rubio is exposure in an important presidential battleground. He is up for reelection in 2016, the same year the White House is up for grabs.
An extensive direct mail and email operation allows Rubio to collect checks from across the country, usually in amounts of $200 or less. But he’s also taken his show on the road.
While Congress was on summer recess last month he headed to California for a half-dozen fundraisers. In April, he touched down in Las Vegas and met with über-donor casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. He’s gone to New York for meetings with top Wall Street donors.
Wednesday’s fundraiser at Hill Country BBQ showed off the latest addition to Rubio’s arsenal: a steering committee of lobbyists and fundraisers. The group is led by Dirk Van Dongen, who is president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and a longtime political rainmaker. Last year Van Dongen raised $1.4 million for Romney, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.