Marco Rubio headed to Iowa: Has 2016 already started?

Senator Marco Rubio will be in Iowa next week – birthplace of many a presidential campaign. After Mitt Romney's dismal showing among Latino voters, the ambitious young Cuban-American is only growing in importance to the Republican Party.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney shakes hands with Senator Marco Rubio (R) of Florida at a campaign rally in Coral Gables, Fla., last month.

If you’re still feeling like little Abby in Colorado, who was driven to tears over “Bronco Bamma” and Mitt Romney and their seemingly endless campaign, read no further.

But the first sign of 2016 is already here: Rising Republican star Marco Rubio is going to Iowa.

On Nov. 17, the junior senator from Florida will headline a fundraiser for Gov. Terry Branstad (R), a spokesman for the governor said Thursday. And, as maybe even Abby knows, Iowa plays a crucial role in the Republican nominating process, first with its straw poll and then caucus.

Senator Rubio’s political stock went way up Tuesday night after Mr. Romney failed to unseat President Obama – in no small part because of the Republican nominee’s dismal performance with the fast-growing Latino vote (just 27 percent, worse even than GOP nominee John McCain in 2008) and other minority groups.

Rubio, who is Cuban-American, was on Romney’s short list for running mate, and in all the post-election GOP hand-wringing, some Republican commentators have said Romney erred in not selecting Rubio for the ticket. Obama appears to have won Florida narrowly – the votes are still being counted – and it’s possible that a more diverse GOP ticket could have helped Romney in Florida and in other Latino-rich states.

But there’s a larger point: The Republicans’ defeat on Tuesday, losing to Obama and also losing several Senate seats they didn’t have to, has put the party’s long-brewing demographic crisis on full display, as it performed poorly among women and young voters as well as minorities. The GOP is searching its soul over how it has become the party of older white men, and how to expand its appeal.

Rubio himself knows that digging out of this hole involves more than just putting someone like him on the ticket. Within moments of Romney’s concession early Wednesday morning, Rubio put out a statement congratulating Obama, and promoting GOP outreach to minorities.

“The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them,” Rubio said. “I look forward to working on these goals with my new and returning colleagues in Congress and hope the president will get behind our efforts."

Suddenly, immigration reform is a high priority for both parties. Obama took a tongue-lashing from a high-profile Hispanic TV host late in the campaign for failing to enact comprehensive immigration reform in his first term, as promised. And now the Republicans, desperate to woo Latinos, are ready to deal.

Republicans have long maintained that their party is a “natural home” for Latinos, who are entrepreneurial, religious, and family oriented, but as long as the GOP was seen as hostile toward illegal immigrants, the rest of the party’s message has fallen on deaf ears.

“We’ve got to make changes, and fast,” says Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan GOP. “As [ex-Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush says, tone matters.”

Rubio is young (early 40s) and has been in the Senate for just two years. In 2010, when he burst into national consciousness, he was dubbed the Republicans’ Obama. In a couple of years, when the 2016 presidential field starts to form in earnest, Rubio could well be in the mix. And it’s not too soon to start laying the groundwork.

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