By John Feehery - 04/15/13 10:49 PM EDT
Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) were the highest-profile stars of the Tea Party Class of 2010. They successfully scared two centrists out of the Republican Party before a primary vote was even cast, and were held out as examples of conservative leadership, dedicated to stopping President Obama at all costs.
Less than three years later, they no longer seem to be so extreme. Instead of being content to vote “no” and go home, they are in the middle of the various Senate gangs. Toomey is working with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to enact some common-sense gun measures, while Rubio is laboring within the Gang of Eight to bring comprehensive immigration reform to the Senate floor.
For a movement that heartily applauded a Senate candidate (Richard Mourdock) who said that his definition of compromise was Democrats agreeing with the Republican position, the fact that its two biggest heroes are now in the mood to find compromise must be shocking.
While Tea Party activists might be shocked, nobody else should be.
Both of these senators understand the big picture, beyond the narrow prism of primary politics. Both Toomey and Rubio understand that you can be principled, that you can be conservative, but that you can also make the Senate work on behalf of the American people.
They also understand that if they are going to win reelection, they have to appeal to more than just the extremes of their party. For Toomey, he has to reposition himself not as a centrist, but as fiscal conservative who can make things happen for his home state of Pennsylvania.
The Quaker State is not in the Deep South, though James Carville once said that the area between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia shares many of the same conservative characteristics as Alabama. For Toomey to win, he has to be able to compete in the Philly suburbs — and that means showing leadership in ways that appeal to more moderate female voters.
Toomey has young children, so I imagine that this isn’t all about politics for him. His leadership on this issue reflects his personal desire to make our country safer for children.
Rubio has a personal connection to the immigration issue: he promised his mother that he would get a bill done.
But the Florida senator also has a political problem.
The Sunshine State is one of the most diverse in the country. And to be politically successful there, you have to prove that you can work with everybody.
Charlie Crist might be unpopular with the Republican base, but polls show him to be the early favorite to reclaim the governor’s mansion because he has a reputation for being able to work on both sides of the aisle. Rubio’s counterpart in the Senate, Democrat Bill Nelson, is a centrist, and Florida has a long line of practical, pragmatic, bipartisan senators, including Bob Graham (D) and Connie Mack (R). They were able to win by appealing to bigger coalitions beyond their political base.
Florida is more Hispanic than ever before, and those Hispanics are less Cuban and more diverse than ever before as well. Even the Cuban vote is changing, becoming less reliably Republican.
That means that Rubio has more at stake in this immigration reform process than most acknowledge. It might hurt him in a Republican primary for president, but it will definitely help him win statewide in 2016.
These Tea Party heroes are making a wise political calculation. Not content to be naysayers who curse the darkness, they are working hard to bring consensus to a Senate that has been mired in gridlock for the last two years. If they are successful, they will be in a much stronger position to win in 2016.
Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at thefeeherytheory.com.