When Sen. Marco Rubio turned 42 on May 28, his Facebook page was swampedwith more than 4,000 messages from people livid with him for championing the immigration reform bill that was moving through the Senate. The notes variously called him a turncoat, a RINO, a traitor, or worse. Some birthday greetings suggested he celebrate in Mexico, Cuba, or hell, while one cheerfully said, “Happy Birthday! Now Resign!”
But the real backlash for Rubio came a month later, after he voted for the Senate immigration reform bill. Senators headed home for the weeklong July 4 recess, or in Rubio’s case, a week of conservative blowback and hometown heartache, including a Tea Party protest in front of his Miami office.
“It was like a suicide mission that has served no purpose that we can tell,” said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the Florida-based National Liberty Federation, of Rubio’s lead role on immigration reform. “The feedback I’ve received is that people are extremely upset with Marco. Tea Party members who were active with us and helped get Marco elected—several have said they’re no longer going to support him.”
Wilkinson organized the first Tea Party event ever held in West Palm Beach, complete with a little-known Senate candidate named Marco Rubio. Rubio’s speech was a hit and his name was passed among Tea Party groups throughout the state and the country.
But at the time, Wilkinson also said some Tea Party supporters quizzed Rubio on his immigration stance and now believe he has taken the opposite position.
“He specifically said he wanted to enforce the borders and have a wall, and make immigration something that you have to earn and that that he wasn’t going to support amnesty,” Wilkinson said. “It’s left a lot of us wondering what happened.”
Although Tea Party supporters alone did not elect Rubio to the Senate, their early advocacy for him, and against Gov. Charlie Crist, gave Rubio crucial momentum, exposure, and a national fundraising network that undoubtedly fueled his rise against the better-known governor.
A split now with conservatives and Tea Party members—the base of his base—will make Rubio a different kind of Republican going forward, for better and worse.
Juan Fiol, a libertarian Republican from Miami who volunteered for Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign, says he won’t vote for Rubio again, nor will many Latinos he knows. “His own volunteers are turning against him. He’s in a lot of trouble,” Fiol said. “I am a Republican, but I do not identify with Rubio anymore. He could have been our savior, and he’s the nail in our coffin.”
Like Wilkinson, Fiol says Rubio “flip-flopped” on his immigration position since 2010. “He ran against this, that’s what bothers me,” Fiol said. “Quite a few times on Fox News, he would say, ‘I am for legal immigration. I am for securing the border.’ Then he turns around and supports amnesty. He might as well switch parties right now. He’s done.”
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