GOP woos Marco Rubio to run for Senate re-election

Sen. Marco Rubio talks about conditions at Eureka Garden apartments in Jacksonville with Mayor Lenny Curry, left, and city council member Garrett Dennis.
Sen. Marco Rubio talks about conditions at Eureka Garden apartments in Jacksonville with Mayor Lenny Curry, left, and city council member Garrett Dennis. FLORIDA TIMES-UNION VIA AP

It’s the nightmare political scenario for the five Republicans running for Florida’s open U.S. Senate seat: What if Marco Rubio changes his mind and seeks re-election?

For months, Rubio denied any interest in remaining in Congress if he lost his presidential bid. Even after getting creamed in Florida’s March 15 primary, Rubio insisted he was looking forward to his future as a “private citizen” come January 2017.

Yet Rubio also made an obvious effort to dive back into Senate work, filling his schedule with votes, news conferences, hearings and floor speeches about preventing the Zika virus, eliminating automatic benefits for Cuban immigrants and tackling problems at a Jacksonville slum. That led to behind-the-scenes talk that perhaps Rubio was more amenable to staying in office than he’d let on.

Rubio’s aides have repeatedly dismissed the rumors as baseless chatter. But on Thursday, Rubio acknowledged that GOP colleagues in the Senate and some Florida activists have prodded him in previous days to run. It’s part of a last-ditch, coordinated effort from Republicans worried they could lose Rubio’s seat — and perhaps Senate control.

That push includes presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump, who late Thursday — hours after Rubio said he’d vote for him — tweeted, “Run Marco!”

On Friday, Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said it would back Rubio if he runs. Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who said no to his own expected Senate candidacy last year, urged Rubio to “answer the call” from Republicans to stick around.

Rubio had chosen to leave the Senate so he could give his all to the presidential campaign — and give potential successors plenty of time to launch their candidacies. But instead of shutting down the recent GOP re-election courtship, Rubio left himself a tiny opening, saying Thursday he might consider re-election if his friend, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, weren’t running for his seat.

“Maybe,” Rubio told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

“If the circumstances were different,” Rubio told Florida reporters. In the same breath, though, he added: “But they’re not. This is the fact: that Carlos is in the race, he’s a good friend, he’s a good candidate, he’ll be a great senator. And so my answer today is no different than it was 24, 48, 72 hours ago.”

What Rubio refused to say was whether he’d jump in if Lopez-Cantera were to drop out before the June 24 candidate qualifying deadline. “I don’t do hypotheticals,” he said.

Neither does Lopez-Cantera, who told the Miami Herald he’s confident Rubio will stick to his original plan.

“Marco’s already said that he’s not running for re-election,” said Lopez-Cantera, adding that he’s “not at all” bothered by the GOP’s apparent preference for Rubio.

In a crowded GOP primary field where no candidate has broken out, Lopez-Cantera might benefit from building up Rubio in the eyes of party leaders ahead of a Rubio endorsement in his favor.

Marco’s already said that he’s not running for re-election.

U.S. Senate candidate Carlos Lopez-Cantera

“Marco’s been really great,” Lopez-Cantera said. “Obviously, he’s my friend, and he’s been very generous with his time and his counsel and his support.... A lot of people clearly trust his judgment and like him, as I do.”

Though Rubio has yet to formally endorse Lopez-Cantera, he participated in a long-scheduled conference call with Lopez-Cantera donors Friday morning, one of the participants told the Herald, and the senator reiterated he’s behind the lieutenant governor’s campaign, despite all the outside pressure. Rubio held a fundraiser for Lopez-Cantera last week in Washington.

For Rubio, seeking re-election might win him loyalty among Republicans he’d need to make another run at the presidency in 2020 or 2024. Yet he could also risk losing his home state — again — and miss the chance of making more money in the private sector. Plus, he’d have to face many more questions about Trump, the Republican atop the November ballot.

Lopez-Cantera’s four GOP rivals — Carlos Beruff of Sarasota, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores and Orlando contractor Todd Wilcox — don’t seem too keen to leave the race, either.

Beruff is staying in even if Rubio seeks re-election — “no matter what,” according to spokesman Chris Hartline.

“Marco Rubio made the right decision in 2010 when he refused to get pushed out of the race by the power brokers in Washington,” Hartline said. “As usual, Washington Republicans think they can control the race, but the voters of Florida will decide who our nominee is, and we feel confident about where we are.”

DeSantis wouldn’t specify his plans if Rubio decides to enter the race.

“We are not concerned with D.C. chatter,” campaign manager Brad Herold said. “We’re focused on continuing to run the strongest campaign of any candidate in Florida.”

Herald/Times staff writers Michael Auslen, Mary Ellen Klas, Alex Leary, Adam C. Smith and Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report.