Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen got behind a horde of microphones Monday afternoon and waved a Florida absentee ballot, still in its envelope.
Inside, she explained, was the reason why she and other Republicans — in Florida and across the country — were lining up to endorse Marco Rubio less than 48 hours after the South Carolina primary.
“On this ballot, there are 13 names,” she said.
But most of them aren’t actual candidates anymore — including her first choice, Jeb Bush, who quit the race Saturday and left his supporters up for grabs three weeks before Florida’s March 15 primary.
Which means there is no time to waste for Bush backers to brush off the defeat and urge voters — especially the ones with ballots already in hand — to make a new choice.
And, increasingly for the mainstream GOP, that choice is Rubio.
“He’s ready, he’s effective, he’s brilliant,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said. “He illustrates the best of the American Dream, and he will unify and strengthen this country.”
He’s ready, he’s effective, he’s brilliant.
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart on Marco Rubio
At least 20 Florida House Republicans who rooted for Bush, led by Speaker Steve Crisafulli and his likely successor, Rep. Richard Corcoran, will switch to Rubio on Tuesday. That includes the entire Miami-Dade County legislative delegation, only a few of whom ever served with Rubio in Tallahassee.
“The prudent thing to do is to support our senator, our hometown guy, but it comes with a heavy heart,” said Rep. Jose Oliva, who was among the Miami delegation members who campaigned for Bush in New Hampshire. “I’m terribly disappointed. I felt Gov. Bush was head and shoulders the most qualified for that job. It’s still amazing to me that we have someone like Gov. Bush out of the conversation.”
Rubio’s campaign announced no fewer than nine big-name political endorsements on Monday besides the ones in Miami, in an effort to consolidate the party before front-runner Donald Trump amasses an insurmountable lead for the nomination. The names include three U.S. senators, a sitting governor, a former governor and five congressmen, including two from Florida, Reps. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor and Jeff Miller of Chumuckla. It seemed a new statement rolled out every hour.
“If these politicians couldn’t help Jeb overcome the [Donald] Trump machine, what makes them think they can help put Rubio — who lost every single delegate in South Carolina to Trump — over the top?” Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Allison Tant said in a statement.
Endorsements certainly don’t guarantee votes (except, perhaps, when they come from a popular sitting governor three days before a close primary, as when Nikki Haley picked Rubio in South Carolina). But they indicate to financial donors there’s growing support for a candidate they may want to bet on. That’s the real, behind-the-scenes race Rubio is trying to win to keep up with better-funded opponents like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The Rubio campaign said several Bush fundraisers had already joined the effort, including former ambassador Francis Rooney and Florida developer John Rood.
It’s by no means certain that all Bush people will go to Rubio: Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge moved to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s campaign, for example. Kasich’s team unveiled other endorsements of its own, in what felt like the first day of an ongoing Rubio-Kasich rivalry.
The more endorsements Rubio picks up, the harder it will be for him to make the case that he’s not the party’s establishment figure in the race — giving Cruz and front-runner Donald Trump ammunition against him. A TV ad for Rubio in South Carolina noted that he had taken on the establishment and won by running against then-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for Senate in 2010.
The race to back Rubio is in part a tactic against Trump. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who has questioned if Trump is a Democratic plant — and said Monday he still considered that “a possibility” — indirectly jabbed Trump in his Rubio endorsement: “The Republican Party and the American people deserve a candidate for president who respects the American people, who respects the Constitution of this great country, and who can attract new voters to participate in our elections.”
In a show of unity, Curbelo, Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen stood Monday with Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Rubio guy. But they still took a few moments to mourn Bush’s campaign in the middle of the Rubio frenzy. None of Bush’s friends had spoken to the former Florida governor after his concession, though former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who also endorsed Rubio, said he had sent Bush an email.
“We love him,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “We think that he was ready to be president from Day One.” Rubio, she added, would bring “new voters, new voices” to the GOP.
We love him.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on Jeb Bush
They stressed that Rubio wasn’t their consolation candidate, saying that their initial loyalty was with Bush because of their longer relationship with him. Bush built the modern Miami-Dade GOP and helped Ros-Lehtinen launch her political career.
“We had an abundance of riches, an embarrassment of riches. We had two wonderful friends,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Politics is what it is. People get weeded out.”
The politicians denied that their quick turnaround to Rubio was intended to pressure Bush into backing his fellow Miamian. They know Bush too well to think he can be pushed: “Gov. Bush will obviously do what he thinks is appropriate at the appropriate time,” Mario Diaz-Balart said.
What about the voters who see Bush’s name on the ballot?
“I’m sure he would say, ‘Please don’t vote for me because those votes won’t be counted’” toward the nomination, Ros-Lehtinen said.