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Once again, Marco Rubio’s future is tied to Donald Trump

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Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's decision to run for reelection boosts the Republicans' chances of holding onto the Senate. But Senator Rubio is not a shoo-in.

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    Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida answers questions from the press after paying respects to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., on June 16.
    Joshua Lim/Orlando Sentinel via AP
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Marco Rubio never intended to run for reelection to his Florida Senate seat. He was going to be the Republican nominee for president, and then win the White House, making history as the first Latino president of the United States.

Then Donald Trump happened – and “little Marco” and a humiliating loss in the Florida primary, where Mr. Trump beat Senator Rubio, 46 percent to 27 percent. Rubio dropped out that night.

Now, Florida’s first-term junior senator is running for reelection after all, he announced Wednesday. The Republicans are desperately trying to keep control of the Senate, and polls show Rubio’s seat is one of the party’s most vulnerable. GOP leaders have been urging him to run, despite his assurances that he wouldn’t.

So in an ironic twist, Rubio will appear on the same ballot as Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee – and once again, Rubio’s political future is tied to the billionaire novice politician who dinged him up royally just a few months ago.

“He’s highly tagged to Donald Trump,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “If Trump does well, he does well. If Trump doesn’t, he doesn’t.”

Trump 'worrisome to me'

And in an extraordinary acknowledgment of the challenge Rubio faces appearing on the same ballot as Trump, he took a slap at the billionaire in his announcement statement.

“The prospect of a Trump presidency is also worrisome to me,” Rubio said. “It is no secret that I have significant disagreements with Donald Trump. His positions on many key issues are still unknown. And some of his statements, especially about women and minorities, I find not just offensive but unacceptable.”

Rubio added that, if Trump is elected, “we will need senators willing to encourage him in the right direction, and if necessary, stand up to him. I’ve proven a willingness to do both.”

Rubio is set to win the Republican primary Aug. 30, as his major GOP opponents have dropped out or are poised to, but he faces a tough Democratic challenger in November – either Rep. Patrick Murphy or Rep. Alan Grayson.

“In the general, he’s going to have a lot of negatives against him,” says Ms. MacManus.

Foremost, Rubio will have to fight the impression that he’s just another opportunistic politician whose word can’t be trusted. In the first sentence of his announcement statement, Rubio anticipated this critique. “In politics,” he wrote, “admitting you’ve changed your mind is not something most people like to do.”

He acknowledged frequently calling the Senate a “frustrating place,” then defended the Senate as a place from which one can “perform great services for the people you have the honor of representing.”

A changing Florida electorate

Florida demographics could also prove challenging for Rubio. He has won the loyal support of Cuban-Americans like him, but the non-Cuban portion of Florida’s growing Hispanic population is on the rise – and Cuban-Americans themselves are less reliably Republican than they used to be.

Rubio can also expect a barrage of negative ads, highlighting Trump’s taunts of Rubio as “little Marco” and as a no-show senator more interested in running for president than in doing his job. Viewers may also be reminded that it was Rubio who descended to Trump-level rhetoric when he joked about Trump’s “little hands,” which led to the most off-color debate moment in modern presidential history.

But ultimately, Trump’s performance in November will be the key to Rubio’s political future. Florida voters, like American voters as a whole, are increasingly voting straight party-line tickets. So Rubio could face a challenge winning Hispanic voters who are turned off by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and vote for Hillary Clinton for president. Ditto the Republicans who may not vote at all, because they can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump.

Rubio’s switch toward a reelection race also likely signals that he’s not finished with presidential politics. Given the pointed anti-Trump rhetoric in his announcement statement, it seems possible that a reelected Rubio would mount a primary challenge against a President Trump in 2020. Even more certain would be a challenge to a President Hillary Clinton.

Why not a run for governor?

Rubio could have taken another path. He could have run for governor of Florida in 2018, boosting his executive profile for another presidential run. But Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has the inside track on the GOP nomination for governor. And even if Rubio could win the governorship in two years, he’d have to pivot immediately toward a presidential campaign – which would look particularly opportunistic.

The safer bet was for Rubio to plead guilty of changing his mind, and run for reelection to the Senate. His prospects are promising. A Quinnipiac poll out Wednesday shows Rubio ahead of Congressman Murphy 47-40 and ahead of Congressman Grayson 48-40. Rubio is the only Republican Senate candidate who beats either Democrat.

Still, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report kept the race in its “tossup” column.

Rubio “has breathed new life into the GOP's chances of holding the seat, but that doesn't mean that he has become anything more than the very slightest of favorites in November,” writes Jennifer Duffy, Cook’s Senate-watcher.

In the Senate, fellow Republicans were delighted by Rubio’s change of heart.

“It’s good for the home team,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another presidential also-ran.

Senator Graham wasn’t troubled by Rubio’s flip-flop. “It never looks bad to change your mind when you’ve got a good reason,” he said. “It changes the electoral map. It’s all good.”

Sen. Cory Gardner (R) of Colorado said that pretty much the entire Republican conference talked to Rubio about running – “if not all, then 99 percent.” He also referenced his own change of heart about running for the Senate two years ago – initially announcing he wouldn’t run, then changing gears.

Of course, Rubio’s position as a sitting senator, with several Republicans already running for what they thought was an open seat, is different from having a House member, as Senator Gardner was, jump in to take on a senator from the opposing party.

One of the Florida Republicans running for Rubio’s seat, Rep. David Jolly, dropped out recently to run for reelection to the House, a sign that he either knew or suspected Rubio was going to get in. Another Republican, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera – a friend of Rubio’s – dropped out of the race Wednesday after Rubio announced. Rubio had originally promised his friend he wouldn’t change his mind, but in recent days, reports appeared that the lieutenant governor had told Rubio he would step aside if Rubio ran, another sign that Rubio was running.

The other major Republican in the race, Rep. Ron DeSantis, has tea party backing – and was also reportedly set to drop out Wednesday and announce for his House seat.

'Fire in the belly'

Back on Capitol Hill, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee might have had an inside track on Rubio’s thinking. The two work out in the gym every morning. Talking with reporters, Senator Alexander wouldn’t share what Rubio said this morning but he added:  

“I know that he was thinking this week about whether he had a fire in the belly.”

The two had discussed that, Alexander said. “I said a fire in the belly comes from a sense of purpose,” he said. “So obviously he feels like he has a sense of purpose.”

Rubio was also concerned about his family having to go through another election just after a presidential race, Alexander said. “But my guess is the Orlando shooting may have had some effect on him, because I know that in 2002 I decided to run after 9/11. It made me stop and think about what could I contribute to our country and I suspect he’s thinking the same thing.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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