An all-out assault on Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioRepublicans giving Univision the cold shoulder: report Week ahead: Senate panel to vote on Trump's Labor pick Senators introduce new Iran sanctions MORE by groups aligned with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is angering GOP senators, who fear it could hurt the party’s chances of capturing the White House.
Right to Rise, a pro-Bush super PAC, has spent an estimated $20 million against Rubio. It is expected to launch a new ad this weekend featuring a clip of former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who endorsed Rubio Tuesday, fumbling to name one of his accomplishments.
“I would rather have any leadership PAC support the person they were formed to support, not by running down others,” Hatch told The Hill. “I would not do that. I’d tell them to do things that support Jeb.”
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who is neutral in the presidential primary, also called for Bush allies to hold their fire.
“I agree with Orrin,” he said. “I don’t think it’s working for Jeb. I certainly don’t think it’s working for the best course of action that [Speaker] Paul Ryan [R-Wis.] talked about for the party to be successful.
Republicans like Roberts and Hatch increasingly see Rubio as their party’s best candidate for winning back the White House.
Rubio placed a strong third in the Iowa caucuses, and polls suggest he is gaining strength in New Hampshire ahead of Tuesday’s primary.
Republicans in Washington see the two Republicans battling with Rubio at the top of the GOP field, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), as weaker general election candidates.
Many lawmakers in Washington like Bush, but believe the shots his allies are taking against Rubio will only hurt their party. Hatch noted that Bush is prohibited by law from coordinating with the PAC and therefore does not bear blame.
Roberts said the deluge of negative ads hitting Rubio could make it tougher to get the party to rally around him if he becomes the nominee.
“It works to a certain degree but there comes a time when it hurts our ability to unify after the nomination,” he said.
Another neutral senator, who requested anonymity to comment frankly, criticized Right to Rise’s tactics.
“I think it was a huge mistake, I really do,” he said, adding that Rubio’s sporadic attendance record in the 114th Congress — a favorite focus of Right to Rise — was a non-issue.
Paul Lindsey, a spokesman for Right to Rise, did not respond to a request for comment.
Republican lawmakers have become more bullish about Rubio since Monday, when he came within two percentage points of edging out Trump, who was projected to win, for second place.
“A lot of them feel that Rubio, one, has a legitimate shot at the nomination and, two, he has the best chance as of today of winning in November,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign.
Rubio this week surpassed Bush — who had been the early establishment favorite — in endorsements, picking up backing from Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds (R), who initially endorsed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, now says Rubio is probably his second choice.
“Rubio is the big winner,” Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who has yet to make an endorsement, said of the Iowa caucus results. “The focus is very quickly shifting to who is in the best position to help us win.
Rubio is seen as a potent possible matchup against Hillary Clinton because he is expected to attract votes from Hispanics and millennials, two crucial voting blocs. A recent UMass-Lowell poll showed that only 13 percent of primary voters in New Hampshire between the ages of 18 and 29 plan to vote for Clinton.
“There’s growing consensus that the top two, Trump and Cruz, may not have the ability to bring us home in November,” he added, noting Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, are seen as the most viable general-election contenders. He later added Bush to that list.
Christie has also turned up the heat on Rubio, mocking him as the “boy in the bubble” because of the careful management of his handlers.
He released a new Web ad this week highlighting the footage of Santorum on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” flummoxed to name one of Rubio’s accomplishments.
One recent Right to Rise ad hits Rubio for breaking promises after backing away from the 2013 Senate immigration bill. Another compares him to a weathervane, constantly shifting in the political winds.
“In New Hampshire, the three governors are really lobbing a lot of things at Rubio because they see his lane as their only way to get back in this game and they’re being very desperate,” said O’Connell. “I think they don’t realize that while they’re acting in their own self interest, they may not be acting in the party’s best interest as this election moves forward.”