The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Conservative Firing Line or an endorsement by Conservative Firing Line.
I entered the 2016 election season without a favorite candidate. I kept an open mind and examined all the potential nominees, but as the first round of primaries draws near, the best nominee for the Republican Party has become clear.
I like many of the Republicans running this year. In fact, that has been a big problem. There are too many. One of my initial favorites, Scott Walker, never caught on. In part this was due to the overcrowded field. In part, the Wisconsin governor just wasn’t ready for the national stage and foreign policy questions.
Even though candidates like Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are appealing, I am leery of untested candidates in such an important election. Running for president is immensely challenging and candidates who have never run a campaign (or, in Ms. Fiorina’s case, won a campaign) would be at a large disadvantage against the Clinton political machine. Two candidates that I liked from previous elections, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, simply did not catch on this cycle.
The man who defunded Obamacare
In the end, one of my early favorites became a strong contender and is one of the top three candidates as the primaries begin. I believe that Marco Rubio is the candidate that, as William F. Buckley put it, is the most conservative candidate who can win.
Many conservatives and Tea Party members have objections to Rubio. He has been charged with being a RINO and a squish. These charges are not supported by fact. The Heritage Foundation scorecard rates Rubio at 94 percent, well above the Republican average of 60 percent. The American Conservative Union rates Rubio at 96 percent. Investor’s Business Daily notes that this is identical to Rand Paul’s score and only four points behind Ted Cruz. Other scorecards compiled by various interest groups show Rubio to be strong conservative on fiscal, social and national security issues.
Even though he has only been in the Senate for six years, Rubio has an impressive list of accomplishments. He has become a strong voice for freedom and human rights. He coauthored a tax reform plan with Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) that would lower tax rates and simplify taxes by replacing the current system with only two tax brackets.
Rubio’s most important accomplishment was pushing through the legislation that may ultimately kill Obamacare. In December 2015, Rubio was successful in including a measure to defund Obamacare’s risk corridors, i.e. insurance company bailouts, in the omnibus spending bill. The measure passed and the results can be seen as insurance companies withdraw from Obamacare amid huge losses.
In moving this measure forward, Rubio showed an understanding of how to accomplish a conservative agenda in a divided government. Grandstanding, ultimatums and brinksmanship are counterproductive. Reaching across the aisle to build a coalition to get a majority of votes can yield large victories.
Further, Rubio has already been the subject of millions of dollars of attack ads by PACs supporting Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush. Rubio has absorbed the attacks and emerged as a strong contender in spite of the onslaught.
This is not to say that Rubio is perfect. Most conservative criticisms of Rubio center around two issues. First, Rubio was part of the “Gang of Eight” senators who attempted to create a bipartisan immigration reform bill in 2013. For his participation, Rubio has been labeled as a supporter of amnesty. This charge also does not stand up to scrutiny.
To make this charge, opponents of the bill must literally redefine the word “amnesty” to mean any immigration reform that does not deport all illegal aliens. In reality, Merriam-Webster defines “amnesty” as “a decision that a group of people will not be punished or that a group of prisoners will be allowed to go free” or “the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” Amnesty is a pardon, which is “an act of officially saying that someone who was judged to be guilty of a crime will be allowed to go free and will not be punished” or “forgiveness for something.”
The Gang of Eight bill did punish illegals, therefore, by definition, it cannot be amnesty. A Washington Post article explained that the Gang of Eight bill required illegal immigrants to pay a $1,000 fine and back taxes in order to become legal. This was predicated on triggers for the border security portions of the bill. Since the bill contained punishment for illegals, it cannot be an amnesty.
Second and more troubling is Senator Rubio’s support for the Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA). This is a bipartisan bill that addresses sexual violence on campus. CASA has been criticized by many conservatives as eliminating due process for people accused of rape on college campuses. My examination of the bill doesn’t turn up any evidence that it eliminates due process. It would be unconstitutional if it did. Nevertheless, it doesn’t solve the very real problem of presumption of guilt on many college campuses. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education provides a summary of the bill. CASA has not been passed nor should it be in its current form. Nevertheless, nothing in it should be disqualifying for Rubio.
A unity candidate
On the plus side of the ledger, Rubio is the candidate most likely to unite both the Republican Party and the country. A recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC News found that Rubio had higher acceptability among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents than either Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. Rubio also had the smallest number of Republicans who viewed him as unacceptable.
Polling has also shown Rubio as the only Republican candidate who consistently beats Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, but, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, national polling is meaningless in a presidential election. Presidential elections are a series of 50 state elections and one election in the Electoral College. To win, any Republican must win four states that President Obama won twice. These states are Florida, Ohio and Virginia plus another state such as Colorado or Iowa. In addition, the Republicans must hold on to North Carolina, which was won by Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012. Of the three leading Republican candidates, Rubio is most likely to shift these swing states to the GOP.
His advantage in Florida is most obvious. Rubio would have a home field advantage in this swing state, but his position on immigration also gives him an important advantage over both Cruz and Trump. Rubio’s experience as majority leader and speaker of the Florida House of Representatives gives him a connection to Florida voters and experience in leadership and government that the other candidates lack.
Demographics and immigration
Pew Research points out that Hispanic voters will likely make up a historically large percentage of the electorate in 2016. In Florida, more than 18 percent of voters will be Hispanic. In Colorado, the number is more than 14 percent. This matters because Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have alienated themselves to many Hispanic and minority voters with their hard line on immigration.
In Virginia, more than 10 percent of the population is made up of immigrants according to The Commonwealth Institute. In Ohio, four percent of the population is foreign born and about half of these are naturalized citizens who are eligible to vote according to The American Immigration Council. Trump and Cruz’s rhetoric on immigration and anchor babies will hurt them in these must-win states where vote margins will be razor thin.
Last August, Gallup found that Donald Trump had a net disapproval rating of 51 percent among Hispanics. This means that the difference between the disapproval and approval was 51 points. Ted Cruz scored better, but still had a net disapproval of seven points. Neither candidate has moderated their view on immigration in the heated primary so both are likely to be even less popular among Hispanic voters now than they were five months ago.
The candidate who scored best was Jeb Bush with an 11 point approval margin. Marco Rubio was second with five points. For reference, Hillary Clinton had a net approval of 40 points.
Some conservatives say that Republicans cannot win Hispanics. This has also been proven false. In his 2013 reelection campaign, Chris Christie won 51 percent of Hispanics according to Pew’s exit polls. Even in a national election, George W. Bush won 44 percent of Hispanics in 2004 according to CNN exit polling. A Republican doesn’t have to win Hispanics outright, but they have to do better than John McCain’s 31 percent or Mitt Romney’s 27 percent.
In 2012, the Hispanics made up 10 percent of voters. In 2016, that number is likely to increase. Republicans cannot afford to nominate candidates who are alienating 10 percent of voters. This is especially true since black voters, 13 percent of the electorate in 2012, already flock to the Democrats almost unanimously.
Leaving demographics aside, Trump and Cruz would still have problems in the swing states because their harsh stance against legalization for illegal immigrants is at odds with public opinion. In August 2015, Gallup found that 66 percent of Americans support a pathway to citizenship while only 14 percent want all illegals deported. Fifty percent of Republicans support a path citizenship as do 77 percent of Hispanics. These numbers are consistent with other polls and long-term trends.
Opposition to deportation is likely to be significant in swing states, making it even more difficult for Republican candidates like Trump and Cruz to win there. Supporting deportation might win the Republican nomination, but it will lose the general election and possibly poison the well with Hispanics for decades to come.
The flawed frontrunners
Finally, Trump and Cruz have other negatives that Rubio does not. The two frontrunners share several similar traits. They both tend to make enemies rather than build coalitions, which will make victory in the general election difficult. Both have a strategy of dividing the Republican Party and hoping to lead the larger faction. Both demagogue other members of their party for their own benefit. Both have squared off against immigration reform and put themselves against the clear majority of voters in doing so. Finally, both Cruz and Trump are essentially showmen. They engage in political theater for the benefit of their supporters, but have little in the way of actual accomplishments.
Trump, in particular, is problematic for conservatives. He has a long record of supporting liberal causes and candidates and has admitted to using his money and influence to gain favorable treatment from politicians of both parties. While Trump claims to have converted to a conservative mindset, there is little evidence other than his own words that he has done so. Like Obama in 2008, Trump is a blank slate on most issues. He allows supporters to project on him their belief of what he is for while rarely taking a firm stand on any issue.
Gallup polling shows that people are familiar with Trump, but that they do not like him. He is not only the most disliked Republican, he is less favored that Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points. Such an approval deficit would be very difficult to overcome.
With Cruz, the case is more difficult. He is also not well liked by most voters outside the GOP, but has more room for improvement. I have trouble supporting Cruz for several reasons in addition to his support for deportation and his unpopularity with general election voters.
First, Cruz has reputation as being a principled conservative, but, in reality, has a long record of flip-flopping on important issues. Cruz has changed his mind on several areas of immigration including legalization, legal immigration visas, and deportation of nonviolent illegals. On all these issues, he has moved in the wrong direction for the general election. Cruz has also moved from nonintervention in Syria to supporting “carpet bombing” of ISIS (although it isn’t clear that he understood what the term meant), supporting other anti-Jihadist factions and possibly using ground troops. Cruz reversed himself on both Trade Promotion Authority (fast track negotiating authority) and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Cruz has also been inconsistent on national security issues such as NSA surveillance.
Second, Cruz’s time in the Senate has been replete with strategic errors and shows little actual accomplishment. He is most known for his spectacular failure with the government shutdown in 2013 in which his strategy caused approval of the Republican Party to plummet to a record low, but his antics also allowed lame duck majority leader Senator Harry Reid to approve a number of filibustered Obama judicial appointees in December 2014. His 2013 filibuster was all for show. He had arranged the speech with Harry Reid in advance and surrendered the floor so that the vote went along as scheduled. Cruz has returned to his shutdown strategy time and again while trying to prevent an increase to the debt ceiling or to prevent passage of the omnibus spending bill in 2015. Cruz seems not to realize or care that Republicans do not have the votes to force their will on President Obama and the Democrats.
Cruz’s problems have made him one of the most unpopular Republicans in the caucus. At this point, Ted Cruz does not have a single endorsement from a sitting senator, the people he works with every day. It seems that the people who know his work best do not think that he is presidential material. The lack of endorsements from Washington politicians is deemed a good thing by some, but in reality it says a lot about Cruz’s inability to build coalitions and turn his platform into law. Either Cruz is wrong or every other Republican senator is wrong.
Contrast Cruz’s endorsements with Rubio’s. Marco Rubio is endorsed by a long list of conservative elected officials. This includes four sitting senators as well as Joni Ernst, the freshman senator from Iowa, who stumped for Rubio without making an official endorsement. Rubio is also endorsed by such stalwart conservative congressmen as Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Darrell Issa (R-CA).
The conservative solution
Emerging from a crowded field, Marco Rubio is the most qualified candidate who can unite the Republican Party in the primary and then win the general election by a large enough margin to create an unquestionable conservative mandate. In 2016, as Republicans attempt to undo the damage of eight years of Obama, eking out a victory by a slim margin is not enough. Democrat liberalism must be thoroughly and soundly rejected.
After eight years of Barack Obama, Republicans have one chance to get it right. If we nominate a conservative candidate who can win then we will have an opportunity to roll back Obama’s policies and begin to repair the damage of the last decade. If we nominate a candidate who cannot win, not only will Obama’s legacy be locked in by a Democratic president but we may lose congressional majorities and the ability to block the next Democratic agenda that may well include nominating Barack Obama to the Supreme Court.
Choose wisely, America.
[Editor’s note: Who do you think won Thursday’s Fox News debate? Click here and let us know.]
The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of Conservative Firing Line or an endorsement by Conservative Firing line.
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