As Marco Rubio continues to face heavy scrutiny over everything from his record on taxes and illegal immigration, to his use of a GOP credit card in which all charged personal expenses were paid back by Rubio, his record as a lobbyist and past associations with controversial figures like Ray Samson, it’s understandable and even expected that the next step will be for some to create a wedge between Rubio and his core constituent base.
Marco Rubio was born in Miami to Cuban-born parents, became the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House, and he takes a hard line on U.S. policy towards Havana. Rubio leads Gov. Charlie Crist by approximately 28 percentage points in the race for the GOP Senate nomination, and in a matchup with Rep. Kendrick Meek, the presumptive Democratic nominee, he wins by 5 points.
So with Marco Rubio poised to become the nation’s third Cuban-American senator, why haven’t the rainmakers in Florida’s Cuban-American donor community rallied to his side?
His challenges begin with the US-Cuba Democracy PAC. The Florida-based lobbying group is prolific, contributing more than $760,000 to congressional candidates in 2008. In this cycle, it had donated $225,000 to 111 House and Senate candidates across the political spectrum as of Feb. 21, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Rubio is not one of them.
Instead, the PAC has thrown in its lot with Meek, already having given him $7,500 — more than any other Senate candidate and as much as it gave Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Albio Sires, D-N.J., the top House recipients.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, the director for US-Cuba Democracy PAC’s Washington operations, stressed that the committee has nothing against Rubio. At a December panel discussion hosted by the committee, Rubio, Crist and Meek all toed the same anti-Castro line, he noted. So then why Meek?
“He’s the only one who’s been in Congress and has a long track record of being an outspoken advocate for human rights and a strong Cuba policy,” Claver-Carone said. “Charlie and Marco are great, and they would be great members of Congress, but they haven’t had that yet. They’ve talked about it and they’ve advocated, but never from a legislative perspective.”
Claver-Carone added that the PAC follows an “incumbency rule” in its giving and considers Meek an incumbent of sorts since he is currently in the House. But the PAC gave $7,000 to former Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., in his 2004 campaign to become the first Cuban-American senator, even though Martinez had never served in Congress.
The 25 Cuban-Americans who make up US-Cuba Democracy PAC’s board, which includes some of the biggest rainmakers in South Florida, haven’t rallied behind Rubio either. As of the end of the fourth quarter 2009, its board members had donated $31,200 to Crist, $14,950 to Meek, and $73,800 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but just $8,150 to Rubio.
The donation numbers for the first quarter of 2010 are not yet available, and several members of the board did not return phone calls about their donations.
Rubio, despite his dominance in the polls, trails both Crist and Meek in cash on hand. Rubio had around $2 million in his coffers at the end of 2009, while Meek had $3.37 million and Crist had $7.56 million.
Does Rubio have a Cuban-American problem? No recent polls have broken down Cuban-American support for Rubio and Crist. But a Public Policy Polling survey released March 10 shows Crist faring better than Rubio with Hispanics in a general election matchup. Crist wins Hispanic voters — Cuban-Americans account for close to half of Florida’s Hispanic vote — by a 43-22 margin over Meek in a potential matchup. Rubio, meanwhile, trails Meek by a 48-35 gap among Hispanics. Both Republicans would defeat Meek, according to the poll, but Crist enjoys a wider margin of victory, thanks in part to this differential.
Crist has a history of electoral success with this group: He won 70 percent of Cuban-American voters in his 2006 race for the governor’s mansion.
Alex Burgos, a spokesman for Rubio’s campaign, said he is confident his candidate has Cuban-American support.
“Marco is a product of this community,” he said. “He is the proud son of Cuban exiles.”
Still, while Rubio would love to carry the Cuban vote, Little Havana isn’t his base. His most strident supporters have largely been white conservatives — including Tea Partiers nationally. They are the ones who shook the rafters at his CPAC speech last month and continue to pour money into his coffers with one-day online fundraising drives, or “money bombs.” Moderate Floridians still favor Crist, but among self-described conservative voters, Rubio trounces the governor by a 69-12 margin in the PPP poll.
Rubio, meanwhile, has taken stances at odds with the Latino community. He is against any immigration reform bill that provides a path to citizenship for the nation’s 12 million illegal aliens; a spokesman said Rubio believes the 1986 amnesty was “a mistake.” He also opposes counting undocumented immigrants in the Census for the purposes of federal aid and congressional reapportionment.
That stance drew a stern rebuke from Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. The organization honored Rubio in 2007 when he became the first Cuban-American leader of the Florida House, but “that was a very different Marco Rubio,” Vargas told the Miami Herald last week.
“I know that in visiting Florida there has been some significant disappointment in the positions he’s taken,” Vargas told NationalJournal.com.
Cuban-Americans who want Washington to take a hard line with Havana need allies in Congress more than ever. One of Congress’ most outspoken advocates for the Cuban embargo, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., announced last month that he will not run for re-election. Former Sen. Martinez, another strong anti-Castro voice, resigned in September before the end of his term.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has tried to offer Havana an olive branch by loosening travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans. The US-Cuba Democracy PAC and other hardliners want Havana to release political prisoners and legalize opposition political parties before Washington offers any carrots.
It’s worth noting that Crist has had problems in South Florida, too. Diaz-Balart and his brother, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R), who are two of Congress’ most anti-Castro members, pulled their endorsement of Crist in December. At the time, Lincoln Diaz-Balart remarked cryptically, “We take our endorsements seriously, but the governor knows why we withdrew and he left us with no alternative.”
Is there a rift between influential Florida Cuban-Americans and Marco Rubio? I believe it depends on how loyal the individual is to the GOP establishment, and especially to Charlie Crist. Party loyalty is a big factor, IMO. For example, Al Cardenas, former Florida GOP Chairman, supports Crist. It’s easy for party partisans to forget that primaries can be just as rough-and-tumble and nasty as general races, and the establishment/incumbent frequently has no qualms about eating their young in order to remain in power.
Also, the article didn’t mention Cuban-American David Rivera’s (state representative and Miami-Dade GOP Chairman) support of Rubio. One would think Rivera’s endorsement would be at least somewhat noteworthy.
Nevertheless, the article’s numbers showing the US-Cuba Democracy PAC’s relative lack of support for Rubio does raise some eyebrows. Mauricio Claver-Carone’s assertion that the PAC supports members of Congress with an established track record on Cuba is understandable, and likely FL Democratic Senate candidate Kendrick Meek has been deserving of their credit in this regard. On the other hand, lack of congressional experience didn’t stop the PAC from backing Mel Martinez in 2004. Perhaps they will wait until the general election to throw more weight at Rubio. We’ll see.
The point where the National Journal’s analysis falls flat on its face on is in recent polls indicating that Florida Hispanics favor Crist over Rubio, somehow suggesting that this is reflective of Cuban-Americans. We can’t tell for sure until we see a specific poll which separates Cuban-Americans from other Hispanics, but if you consider that Cuban-Americans typically vote out of step with the rest of Florida Hispanics (see the 2008 presidential election), these polls don’t say much about where Cuban-Americans stand on Rubio.