Democrats comforting themselves with the thought that 2016 will be a cakewalk with Donald Trump or Ted Cruz as the most-likely Republican nominee may want to think again. Take a look at what’s happening on the other side in Iowa and there’s some disturbing trends at work. Marco Rubio is about to finish a strong third in the caucus that could put him on the path to the nomination.
It’s been a good week for Rubio. He received the Des Moines Register’s endorsement, which should help him pull away some of the business conservatives from Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, and just provides a nice momentum boost. Joni Ernst campaigned with him on Monday, though she didn’t endorse (why not, I have no idea). And his crowds are growing steadily, with 500 turning out to see him in West Des Moines last night. Most attendees signed caucus commitment cards on their way out. His early organization was much-maligned, but they’ve righted the ship and Rubio is campaigning heavily in Iowa at the end.
Perhaps more importantly, his competition faces the opposite trend. The withering assaults on Cruz from all sides has had its effect. He’s fallen behind Trump in most polling and has been stuck traveling through smaller counties recently to fulfill his 99-county pledge. Bush and Christie have so far failed to find that spark at the end to move up. There could be a big gap between Rubio’s likely third place finish and whoever is fourth. Grabbing the number two spot is even possible.
Then what happens? If Cruz comes in a disappointing second in Iowa, he’ll have to bounce back strong in South Carolina to propel him into the southern states on March 1st. But Trump will have won the first two big contests at that point. Without early victories, Cruz may fade in his match-up for the Tea Party vote against Trump.
Meanwhile, the center-right/”establishment” group of Bush, Christie and Kasich will thin after two of the three place behind one of the others in New Hampshire. Christie and Kasich are both low on money and staff infrastructure as is, so even if they emerge from New Hampshire they’ll be hard-pressed to turn it into something more. And Kasich is an absolutely awful candidate in person, so there’s that too.
Who remains? Rubio. A strong Iowa finish will give him momentum to do well in New Hampshire and South Carolina as well. He’ll quickly stand as the rational Republican’s best hope after the center-right candidates knock each other out in New Hampshire, and Trump eventually finishes Cruz off sometime in March or April. That leaves plenty of time for Rubio, who has sufficient fundraising and national staff, to coalesce the Bush/Christie/Kasich and some Cruz voters into a real coalition to take on Trump. For all his dominance in the polls, Trump hasn’t gotten above 50% in many places yet. The Republican Party may very well pull itself back from the brink if it gets to a one-on-one match with Trump and Rubio soon enough.
Why should Democrats fear a Rubio nominee? Many reasons, not least among them his youth, his Hispanic background, his immigrant story, his excellent oratorical skills, his attractive appearance or his uplifting vision of new leadership for the future.
But one of the biggest reasons came last night at his event in West Des Moines when a union pipefitter member stood up to ask him how he felt about organized labor.
“We need to value these jobs, and I want to congratulate the Pipefitters union,” Rubio told the man. “They’re doing extraordinary work in taking veterans into apprenticeship programs and training them to work in the workplace, and we need to acknowledge that … We need to stop telling young Americans that being a pipefitter or a being a welder is for the kids who aren’t smart enough to go to college, because that’s a lie … What I’d like to do is work more closely with unions such as yours to ensure we can get more young Americans into apprenticeship programs, into career-training programs so that they can do this work that our country needs.”
At countless other events around Iowa, Republican candidates have not minded bluntly telling a voter to their face that they don’t care about or support their issue if it falls in the more progressive category. Rubio was speaking before many of the country club Republican crowd in West Des Moines that night. He easily could have slammed unions’ effects on business. Instead he tried to win over the man’s vote while still sticking with a conservative message.
That’s a large part of Rubio’s closing message to Republicans: that he’s the electable one.
“We must chose a nominee for this party that wins,” he implored his audience. “And I will win … I will bring this party together … But that alone won’t be enough. We have to go out and convince new people to vote for us, people that haven’t voted for us in the past, and I will. Because I will be able to go to people who are living the way I grew up … They can’t attack me or lecture me about living paycheck-to-paycheck because I grew up paycheck-to-paycheck.”
Rubio could strike at the heart of many key Democratic constituencies. Chief among them is Hispanics and recent immigrants who have swung overwhelmingly for Democrats in recent years, and who Democrats hope will solidify their hold on the electoral college going forward. Rubio could undo much of that work.
“For me America is not just the country I was born in, it’s the country that changed the history of my family,” Rubio said in his pitch on how he’s experienced the American Dream. “My parents came here in 1956, they didn’t have very much. My father stopped going to school when he was nine. His mother died, he had to go to work … Less than ten years after they came here like that, my parents owned a home. Not a mansion, but a home in a safe and stable neighborhood.”
Yes, Rubio still holds plenty of very conservative stances unpopular with the broad electorate, including on immigration that could blunt his advantage with many voters. But any Democrat who doesn’t recognize the incredible potential and appeal of a Rubio candidacy is fooling themselves. And those day-dreaming about a landslide victory against Trump or Cruz should wake up, look at what’s happening on the other side, and give real consideration to what Democrats will face if Marco Rubio is the Republican nominee.
by Pat Rynard