By Manu Raju and Steve Contorno, CNN
Six years ago, Sen. Marco Rubio offered a blunt warning about the “reckless and dangerous” Donald Trump: He would do “damage to America.”
“We have a con artist as the frontrunner in the Republican Party,” said Rubio, a Florida Republican, as he saw Trump steamroll his way to the GOP presidential nomination.
But as he now seeks a third term representing Trump’s adopted home state, Rubio’s tune has markedly changed.
“I think he helps,” Rubio told CNN when asked about Trump’s effect on his campaign.
“First of all, he’s a Floridian, so I need his vote,” Rubio said. “But beyond that, I mean, he’s brought a lot of people and energy into the Republican Party.”
Rubio’s full embrace of his former rival is the latest twist in the arc of a political career that has taken him from tea party darling to bipartisan deal-cutter to a favorite of the party establishment and now as a Republican aligned squarely with the former President. And as he heads into reelection, the 50-year-old conservative is benefiting from running in a state that has gone from a perennial battleground to one where Republicans have run the table in recent election cycles.
Rubio is looking like a clear favorite in his reelection bid, with no primary threat emerging — even as he’s preparing for an onslaught of attacks from a well-financed Democratic congresswoman, Rep. Val Demings, who is running to take his Senate seat and is positioned to raise more money than him.
Rubio says his reelection won’t sink or swim because of Trump, insisting voters will judge his own record. Yet he’s careful not to criticize the former President — whether it’s on Trump’s recent suggestion to pardon the January 6 rioters, his removal of boxes of White House records to Mar-a-Lago or even the incessant conspiracies and lies about the 2020 election being stolen.
Asked if he had concerns about Trump’s stolen election claims, Rubio instead said he was focused on the Russian conflict with Ukraine and Americans’ economic concerns.
“This is real stuff,” he said on his way to a briefing on Ukraine earlier this week.
Rubio’s handling of the mercurial former President underscores how most Republicans facing voters in the fall see little upside in distancing themselves from Trump, recognizing that even the mildest form of criticism against him could provoke headlines that draw his ire and anger their core voters.
Rubio has been sharply critical of the Democratic-led investigation into the Capitol Hill insurrection, and when asked if he believes Trump was responsible for the Capitol attack, he instead pinned the blame on those who broke into the building.
“I think the people responsible for January 6 are ultimately the people that entered this building and broke the law,” Rubio said in an interview.
Rubio wouldn’t say whether he agreed with Trump’s call to pardon the rioters. “We have too many real problems for me to focus on hypothetical ones,” he said. And he also contended that the Capitol attack would not be a decisive issue in his race.
“What happened January 6 was horrible and it was a terrible day, it should never happen again. And people are being prosecuted for it,” Rubio said. “But what does that have to do with the fact that people are paying exorbitant prices for everything, they can’t find things, can’t find workers?”
The Florida Republican also turned the screws on his opponent, even as he conceded there is “no doubt” she would raise more money than him in the highly expensive state.
“She’s a Pelosi puppet, votes with Pelosi 100% of the time, that’s why she wants her in the Senate,” Rubio said of Demings, referring to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “She’s done nothing in her time in Congress.”
Approached in the Capitol, Demings declined to be interviewed on the race and later declined to be interviewed on the phone.
“Career politician Marco Rubio is running a floundering, no-show campaign built on baseless attacks against a law enforcement officer of 27 years and former Orlando Police Chief,” said Christian Slater, a Demings campaign spokesman.
The evolution of Trump and Rubio
Rubio said he’s spoken to Trump “a couple times” since he left office. A source familiar with the former President’s thinking said their conversations are friendly and often focus on foreign affairs, an arena where the two found common ground during his term.
Asked if he stood by his past attacks of Trump from 2016, Rubio pointed to Vice President Kamala Harris’ criticisms of President Joe Biden on the campaign trail during the Democratic primary.
“That’s what happens in the primaries,” Rubio said. “Other people had a tougher go of it. (Harris) now is his vice president, I wasn’t vice president. I’d like to hear her answer on that before I give you my answer.”
Rubio then added of Trump: “He won the primary, he was the President of our party, and he’s a better President than Joe Biden.”
Rubio’s warnings about Trump went well beyond typical primary sparring between presidential contenders. Rubio called Trump “an embarrassment” and said it would be dangerous to give the former reality star the nuclear codes. Rubio memorably questioned Trump’s manhood.
“And you know what they say about guys with small hands,” Rubio said in 2016 of Trump.
Many Republicans in Florida haven’t forgotten “the debate stage and the tête-à-tête between the two of them,” said Tom Gaitens, who represents the Tampa area on the state party’s central committee. Some Trump supporters have occasionally suggested finding a MAGA-aligned candidate to get behind, Gaitens said, but Rubio has managed to beat back any mass uprising.
“Once the Trump train was on the tracks, I think Marco got on board,” Gaitens said.
The rumors, though, hit a crescendo after January 6, when Rubio was not among the eight Republican senators who voted against certifying the election results. Rubio called it “a terrible idea.” His Florida counterpart, US Sen. Rick Scott, voted against certification of Pennsylvania’s electors.
When Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner signed a lease on a luxury condo in Miami, speculation swirled that the former President’s daughter could mount a challenge to Rubio.
But Ivanka Trump shut down those rumors with a tweet. The whispering ended altogether when Trump announced last April his “complete and total endorsement” of Rubio. That same day, Trump held a luncheon fundraiser for Rubio at Mar-A-Lago.
“President Trump and Sen. Rubio worked together to achieve historic results for Floridians, and we look forward to highlighting that record of achievement throughout the campaign,” said Elizabeth Gregory, spokeswoman for Rubio’s campaign.
Though Eric Trump vowed after the election to “personally work to defeat every single Republican senator” who didn’t help stop the vote count, there has been little appetite to boot out incumbent Republicans like Rubio with the GOP so close to gaining control of the Senate. Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski is so far the only Republican senator with a challenger backed by Trump — in large part because she voted to convict the former President in his second impeachment trial over his role in the insurrection.
“You’re not going to find a Republican in Florida that thinks giving someone else a shot at that seat is smart to do right now,” said Tom Powers, the chairman of the Broward County Republican Party.
Florida’s right turn
Rubio nearly gave up the seat he is now looking to represent for a third time.
As he ran for the White House in 2016, he consistently maintained he wouldn’t return to Washington as a lawmaker. Rubio ultimately changed his mind just days before Florida’s 2016 filing deadline, and he coasted to reelection against weak competition, outperforming Trump, who managed a narrow upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Sunshine State.
Florida has lurched even further to the right since Rubio’s last race. Trump won Florida in 2020 by more than 3 points, an improvement from 2016 when his margin was a little more than a point. Republicans have surpassed Democrats in active registered voters for the first time last year and now hold a 60,000-voter advantage. Meanwhile, Florida Democrats are attempting to rebuild on the fly after a leadership shakeup and have struggled to field candidates up and down the ballot.
Demings’ entrance into the race was greeted with a sigh of relief from Democrats, and she has proven a capable fundraiser, raising $20 million since June. Democrats believe Demings has unique appeal as a Black woman and a former Orlando police chief who served as an impeachment manager and made Biden’s shortlist for running mate. Her campaign has sought to juxtapose her background as a cop and social worker against Rubio’s quarter-century in politics. Rubio was first elected to the West Miami city commission in 1998 just two years after he graduated law school.
But the reality on the ground makes Demings’ path to victory a narrow one. It relies on Democrats energizing their base, finding new voters to show up on Election Day and convincing moderates and independents to swing back to the left, a formula they have cracked only once in 12 statewide races since then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 victory in Florida.
So far neither party has committed financial resources to Florida, a notoriously expensive state to advertise in. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent $4 million nationally and just $3,253 in Florida.
“It’s going to be about issues — not endorsements,” said Scott, who is the chairman of the NRSC when asked about Trump’s impact on the race.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent just $5,500 in Florida and Democratic PACs that have already amassed seven-figure bills have not made investments in the Sunshine State.
Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, chairman of the DSCC, praised Demings and said the party committee was watching the race closely and could spend money in the state.
“She’s raising lots of money, she’s getting a lot of energy on the ground — and it’s one that I’m watching very closely,” said Peters, whose committee has invested in a $30 million effort in Florida and eight other battleground states on organizational efforts on the ground.
At $5 million, Florida ranks 11th in spending on Senate races to date, trailing far behind states with heated primary contests that both parties have prioritized in the fight to gain control of a chamber that is currently split 50-50. By comparison, spending has eclipsed $27 million so far in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Ohio — all states with primary fights. Rubio is sitting on $10.6 million while Demings has $8.2 million after spending $4.6 million, mostly on digital advertising, yet she has consistently outraised him since getting in the race.
“She’s gonna raise a lot of money,” Rubio said.
Yet Demings’ task is made even more difficult by recent trends in South Florida, where Republicans have made significant inroads into Latino communities that traditionally supported Democrats. Rubio, a Cuban American and fluent Spanish speaker, has long enjoyed higher backing than most Republicans in these neighborhoods.
Even as Rubio embraces Trump, Demings has notably avoided making the race about the former President. Instead, her campaign and Florida Democrats have criticized Rubio over his record, including voting against the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Rubio similarly said he intends to campaign on his record and often touts his work to enact the Paycheck Protection Program that sent checks to small businesses during the pandemic, along with work on Latin America policy, veterans issues and responding to China’s human rights abuses.
“People are going to makes their decision on the basis of what I’ve done for them as their US senator during the last six years,” Rubio said, “and I would put up my record over the last six years against anyone.”
Rubio has also sought to neutralize Demings’ long career as a police officer by rolling out support from Florida’s law enforcement. He recently unveiled endorsements from 55 of the state’s 67 county sheriffs.
Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith, a Republican, was not one of them. He flat out refused to endorse Rubio when the request came in because he found the Florida senator wasn’t responsive to his county’s methamphetamine crisis. Smith sent out a call for help to Florida’s congressional delegation and to Tallahassee. Scott responded. So did Gov. Ron DeSantis, who Smith happily endorsed. Rubio never did, he said.
“He won’t even respond to a letter that I wrote, why would I support him?” Smith said. “If you’re not going to support your local communities when they need you, I’m not going to support you.”
In a statement, Gregory, the Rubio spokeswoman, said drug trafficking in the country can be traced to “Joe Biden’s dereliction of duty in addressing the crisis at our southern border.”
Republicans who back the senator see him as still viable as a presidential candidate — assuming he survives his reelection campaign and the Trump era.
“Donald Trump will not be around in 2044 and probably won’t be around a lot sooner than that,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Rubio pollster who worked on his presidential campaign, noting the senator’s age. “It helps if you’re going to be talking about Rubio’s political career to take the long view rather than just focus on one election cycle.”
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s David Wright and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.