Marco Rubio's new mission: Win back the Republican Party’s base

Sen. Marco Rubio's immigration push might have hurt his chances of winning the GOP presidential nomination, Republican lawmakers say. [WATCH VIDEO]
 
While it’s still a long way until 2016, a number of GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate say Rubio (R-Fla.) will have to repair his standing with the conservative base if he hopes to be his party's next candidate for president.
    
“There's terrible disappointment with Marco Rubio specifically,” says Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), an opponent of the Senate immigration bill that Rubio helped write and pass. “I don't think it's going to help him anywhere.”

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“He's a very important voice in our party. I've got the greatest respect for him. He's got a bright future, but he's going to get an awful lot of questions from an awful lot of people, and rightfully so. … It's problematic for him.”
 
Rubio has slipped from leading in presidential polls of Republican voters to sitting in fourth to sixth place, depending on the survey. Polls in early-voting Iowa and other state-level surveys have reflected a similar pattern.

The biggest dips in support for Rubio have come with voters who identify themselves as very conservative.

“He's definitely on the rehabilitation trail,” said Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas).
 
Marchant, a fierce critic of the Senate-passed immigration bill, said its contents are “very unpopular” in his suburban Dallas district. He praised Rubio’s political skills and called him a “good guy,” but said the bill could cost him in parts of the country with the GOP base.
 
“Rubio will have a decent chance because people like him,” he says.
 
Rubio’s favorability numbers have stayed fairly strong with Republicans, and his unfavorable numbers aren’t that high — a recent Pew Research poll found 50 percent of GOP voters approved of him, and 20 percent disapproved, 10 points lower than the number who disapproved of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a potential rival in 2016.
 
Rubio acknowledges the immigration debate has hurt him with the party’s base.
 
“I didn't do it for politics, for obvious reasons, as you're just outlining. A lot of people are upset about it. I did it because I thought it's important for this country to solve this problem,” Rubio said Wednesday on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity.”
 
“Going into it, he knew what the political risks were and that he was unlikely to benefit from it, especially in the short term, but he felt very strongly that the immigration system is broken, and he had to do something and worked hard to get a bill through the Senate that he and other Republicans could support,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told The Hill.

“Obviously it hasn't helped him politically to get involved in immigration, but it's what he believes in,” Conant said.
 
The immigration debate is far from over and might be a distant memory by 2016. A number of other potential Republican candidates have also embraced reform to various degrees, giving Rubio some political cover.
 
But that doesn’t mean Rubio hasn’t been hurt by the debate. His task now is to remind the GOP base why they loved him in the first place.

Since the Senate passed the immigration bill, Rubio has pivoted to a focus on issues important to the GOP base. He’s taken the lead on conferring with other anti-abortion rights senators on working to pass a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy while vocally advocating the defund ObamaCare movement.
 
“As with [defunding] ObamaCare and abortion, he's fighting for what he believes in, and isn't worried about the politics,” says Conant.
 
Other GOP lawmakers agreed that Rubio's work had hurt him but said he could easily bounce back.
 
“I think if he comes out [to Iowa], he's very articulate; he talks about his conservative values, what brought him here, he can come back; there's no question,” Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) said about Rubio’s chances in his early-voting primary state.
 
“I don't think it helped him at all. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. He's a cool guy; he can recover. But he learned a big lesson,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), a former leader of the campaign operation for House Republicans.

“The first cut's the deepest. He has probably learned a good number of things,” Sessions said.
 
Rubio’s fellow Republican senators offered a rosier appraisal.
 
“He's just a delightful person, and he's talented. If it was a negative, I think he can recover from it,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a leading opponent of the Senate immigration bill.

“Politically, Marco is a very talented person. On immigration, although he was the most visible supporter, he did say, more than any other in the Gang of Eight, he said there were serious flaws in it that need to be fixed,” Sessions said.
 
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who ultimately voted against the Senate bill, said Rubio showed "remarkable courage” in taking the lead on a difficult issue.
 
“I don't know anybody who does a better job of articulating his position than Sen. Rubio. It's going to be controversial, but it's not going to be a drag on his candidacy,” Cornyn says.
 
And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who helped write the immigration bill in the Gang of Eight, said the trial by fire has only made Rubio stronger.

“Marco is going to be fine. The country is ready for immigration reform,” Graham said.

“What I'm looking for, and what most of the country's looking for, is a leader, and any time you lead, you're going to be shot at and criticized, and if you're leading on something that matters, that's important, that helps your country and your party, then that's a net benefit, and it will be for him.”