Marco Rubio

For Sen. Marco Rubio, immigration shift could win the right but hurt elsewhere

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. walks from the stage after speaking during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., Friday, Feb. 27, 2015.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. walks from the stage after speaking during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., Friday, Feb. 27, 2015. AP

At a gathering of the nation’s conservative political activists last week, Sen. Marco Rubio won back at least some of the trust he’d lost in 2013, when he helped broker a bipartisan immigration plan.

For conservatives such as William Temple, what the Florida Republican and potential presidential candidate had to say was welcome indeed.

“I believe he has a sincere heart,” said Temple, who made a splash at the Conservative Political Action Conference by helping to engineer a walkout of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s appearance. “I think he really wants to resolve that issue.”

But if the senator has just found his way back to the conservative wing of the party, experts also say he runs the risk of alienating other Republicans.

“Sen. Rubio needs to be careful how he positions himself on immigration reform,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of the polling and research firm Latino Decisions and a professor at UCLA. “Rubio needs to find a way to engage conservatives on the immigration issue, and to convince them that this is the right thing to do – and not let conservatives convince him to flip-flop on the issue.”

In a December poll by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of respondents overall favored a pathway to legal status for immigrants who meet certain requirements. But support was lower among Republicans (53 percent) and lower still among those who are tea party supporters (42 percent).

Rubio, a first-term senator, was once a darling of the nation’s conservatives but is now viewed skeptically by many of them – despite having one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate. The change is largely because of his role in pushing an overhaul of the immigration system that made it through the Senate in 2013 but stalled in the House of Representatives.

Asked onstage at CPAC this past week about 2013, Rubio said he’d learned from the episode.

While acknowledging that there are millions of people who’ve lived in the United States for years and haven’t broken laws except for those on immigration, Rubio said doing something about the population that was in the country illegally needed to take a backseat to more pressing immigration-related concerns.

“What I’ve learned is you can’t even have a conversation about that until people believe and know – not just believe, but it’s proven to them – that future illegal immigration will be controlled,” he said. “That is the single biggest lesson of the last two years.”

That lesson was cheered by conservatives but comes with its own risks, said Fernand R. Amandi, managing partner of the Miami-based political firm Bendixen & Amandi International, which does work mostly for Democrats but also for some Republicans.

“It’s not so much that he made a 180, but instead a couple of 360s when it comes to his position on immigration,” Amandi said. “The senator runs the risk of being seen as a political pinwheel.”

It’s not the first time Rubio has been seen as moderating his immigration stance. He was, in fact, viewed as a moderate Republican on immigration issues while in the Florida Legislature, Amandi said. He then veered right, and then back to the center, and now back to the right, Amandi said.

“His comments at CPAC suggest he made the wrong political gamble, from his perspective,” Amandi added.

Rubio was greeted warmly Friday by a ballroom audience, and he didn’t receive the boos awarded his onetime mentor Bush. Attendees interviewed afterward said the trust they’d lost in him was coming back.

“I want him to be a contender. I really do,” said Robert Rankin of Butler, Pa. “I’m pulling for him. I think he has the potential. Maybe the capability – the legitimate capability – to do it.”

“I like him,” added Jim Hanson, who’s executive vice president of Secure Freedom, a Washington research center formerly known as the Center for Security Policy. “There’s one thing the Republicans have lacked, and it’s charisma. He’s a charismatic guy.”

Hanson, originally from Wisconsin, supports Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. “I could go with Walker-Rubio,” he said.

Temple, who protested Bush while dressed in the garb of Declaration of Independence signer Button Gwinnett, is an organizer of the Golden Isles Tea Party in Brunswick, Ga. He first saw Rubio years ago in Florida and has followed him ever since.

Temple supports Texas Sen. Ted Cruz but has a fondness for Rubio.

“I like him. I think he’s a wonderful guy,” Temple said. “He needs to make it as crystal clear as he can that American citizens come first, and that’s what we want to hear. And if you do that, I’m sure he will get more votes.”