Marco Rubio has traveled to 20 countries, including some of the world’s most dangerous hot spots, and landed a chairmanship of a key international affairs subcommittee during nearly six years in the U.S. Senate.
But as his re-election campaign tightens in the stretch run, the Miami Republican is emphasizing one topic in his foreign policy repertoire: his opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
In a span of a week, Rubio featured the issue during a speech at a Boca Raton synagogue, during an exclusive 30-minute taped interview on a Jewish cable television program, and in a piece he wrote for CNN.com. During Monday’s hour-long debate with his Democratic opponent Patrick Murphy, it was the only foreign policy issue that Rubio pressed.
It’s one reason Rubio says he won’t vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. He blasted Murphy for supporting the deal because he said it delivers “billions and billions of dollars to a radical nation led by an ayatollah who has threatened to use nuclear weapons against the state of Israel.” In an interview on Jewish Life Television, he said it “makes the world more dangerous and it’s going to lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”
Rubio is hoping to elevate the diplomatic agreement to the level of litmus test for traditionally left-leaning Jewish voters who otherwise would favor Murphy, a Palm Beach County Democrat. Jewish voters represent less than 6 percent of Florida’s nearly 13 million voters. But given that President Obama won Florida by less than 75,000 votes in 2012, peeling off even 1 percent of that support could tip a close race.
Republicans are heartened by 2012, when Mitt Romney won 30 percent of the Jewish vote. In the previous five presidential elections no Republican candidate topped 25 percent.
But Trump at the top of the ticket promises a reversal. Only 19 percent of American Jews surveyed by the American Jewish Committee last month supported Trump over Clinton. On the issue of Iran, 58 percent of the 1,002 Jewish voters surveyed said they think Clinton would more effectively deal with Iran than Trump. Only 19 percent said Trump would.
Trump undermines Rubio’s outreach strategy, said Greg Rosenbaum, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. He said all the data he’s looking at shows Jewish voters hardening in their opposition to Trump. Criticizing the Iran nuclear deal, Rosenbaum said, is not the vote driver that Rubio seems to think it is.
“The Iran deal has not had electoral legs,” said Rosenbaum, pointing out that Democrats challenged on the topic in primaries — like U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston — had little trouble winning re-election.
Murphy has called the deal flawed but said he supports it because it is the “best available option to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.” Like Rubio, Murphy has invested in spending his time in Congress on foreign policy. He serves on the House Intelligence Committee and has made three trips overseas, including to Afghanistan and Israel since he was elected in 2012.
Fred Brown, communications director for the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the deal “is an important issue, especially among Jewish voters.”
Brown said volunteers are going door to door in Jewish communities in Broward County to emphasize the issue. In Pennsylvania, the group is spending $500,000 in the Philadelphia suburbs to back Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who opposes the Iran deal, in his re-election bid against Democrat Katie McGinty.
But Rosenbaum said any message Republicans are trying to deliver to Jewish voters is getting drowned out this year.
“The entire party is hamstrung by the guy at the top of the ticket,” Rosenbaum said.