The two big winners of the Iowa caucus were the early darlings of the Tea Party movement – Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE (R-Texas) and Marcos Rubio (R-Fla.). Cruz may have won the most votes, but Rubio’s strong third place finish, tied with his gaining support from establishment Republicans as a Stop-Cruz and Stop-Trump candidate, make him the most noteworthy candidate of the night. A look at the two candidates’ careers’ shows that Rubio is an unusual candidate – bold and able to navigate the different wings of the party.  

Cruz’s success has followed a fairly common trajectory. He was a traditional conservative Republican who took on a more established Republican, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, in a Senate primary in 2012. While this may have seemed bold, victory in the primary was tantamount to election, and the race would not have hurt the Republicans chances in November. Cruz might have made enemies – something the “most hated man in the Senate” has an impressive record of doing – but he was not risking long-term damage. The party was clearly going to keep the seat, so the run was simply about who got it. By that time, the Tea Party had well established itself in the Republican Party. They may still have been costing Republicans’ seats, such as with the nomination of Todd Akin in Missouri or Richard Mourdock in Indiana, but for the most part, these Tea Party candidates were winning their races.


Rubio had a very different track to run. He ran in 2010, when the Tea Party made its first foray into politics. The candidates they supported in that race were frequently more unrefined – note Sharon Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska or Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Rubio was not that at all. And this fact may point out why he may be the establishment choice for the nomination going forward.

Rubio was not an insurgent who never held a high-level office, like many of the other Tea Party candidates of 2010. Instead, he was a former Speaker of the Florida House. He challenged a popular sitting governor, Charlie Crist, for the Senate nomination, and was risking a Democratic triumph if the party split. However, that did not deter him, nor did the calls for him to step down. Instead, he convincingly defeated Crist not just at the primary race, but also in the general election when Crist ran as an independent. If the Republicans had lost the seat, Rubio would likely have had to shoulder the blame. But he was clearly willing to take that risk.

The story of Rubio’s career is not that he was carried by the initial Tea Party wave, but that he instead rode it. Now, he has managed to move from being the Tea Party darling to the de-facto establishment candidate in one term in the Senate. He also managed to dethrone his former mentor Jeb Bush in this role. The Republican primaries are just starting, but Rubio’s long career of successful moves and especially the relatively unusual ability to navigate the different wings of his party may mean that he is the real frontrunner going forward.

Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He blogs at