The following story appears in the January print issue of City & State Magazine.
Flanked by his family on election night, the smile on Marco Rubio – Florida’s senior U.S. senator – couldn’t have been wider.
He took the stage at his watch party to address the crowd shortly after polling places closed. Despite being outspent and pre-election polling suggesting a competitive contest, his race was one of the first national ones to be called as he quickly shot up to a double-digit advantage. In his speech, he chalked up his victory to his stances against left-wing policies he has taken throughout his legislative career.
"I knew that no amount of money was going to convince people in the state that America should embrace Marxism and socialism,” Rubio said.
A Republican who has fashioned himself into a foreign affairs expert in D.C. over his first two terms, Rubio also has a reputation of reaching across the aisle in policy pursuits targeting countries that embrace communism. His hawkish attitude has kept his star bright with his base in Miami-Dade County, where the Cuban and Venezuelan expat populations overwhelmingly support him.
Rubio is undoubtedly one of the most stable names in Florida politics after his decades as a prominent political figure – including serving as speaker of the Florida House – and now in the wake of his latest victory. His 16½ point margin of victory is likely due in part to being on the same ballot as Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of the darlings of his Republican Party who also coasted to reelection. Rubio now sits only behind DeSantis and former President Donald Trump in Florida’s Republican pecking order.
It’s a long way from his “gulp heard ‘round the world” in 2013, when he gave the official GOP response to then-President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address and had to pause to take a swig from a Poland Spring bottle. (“My mouth got dry – what can I say?” he later said.) And it has been almost seven years since Trump mocked him as “Little Marco” in a Fox News debate – in which Rubio’s retort of “Big Donald” fell flat.
Now, with his next six years secure, he could bide his time for an appointment in the next GOP administration – or maybe even go for a second round on the presidential circuit.
A few weeks out from the election, polling suggested the Senate race between then-U.S. Rep. Val Demings and Rubio would be close. Most had him beating his Democratic rival by single digits, with a few even within the margin of error.
Yet Rubio ended up winning with a whopping 1.27 million more votes than Demings. The landslide victory came even as he was outspent by Demings, a former Orlando police chief, by $30 million. DeSantis, of course, won by over 19 points after breaking national gubernatorial fundraising records. Statewide GOP voter registration finally overtook Democrats after decades, though Republicans have effectively been in charge of state government since the turn of the century.
However, Charles Zelden, a political science professor at Nova Southeastern University, said Rubio would be making a mistake to attribute his margin of victory to, well, himself. “It says less about what Floridians think of Marco Rubio than it does about the nature of the election itself,” Zelden said. “The guy won legitimately, but I think the size of his victory is owed more to DeSantis and the trends in Florida than to him and the way he ran his race.”
In Rubio’s home county of Miami-Dade, he remains almost as popular as DeSantis. The governor only got 7,000 more votes than Rubio in the county that shifted red for the first time since Jeb Bush was in the Governor’s Mansion. Jose Oliva, the Republican Florida House speaker in 2018-20, said Rubio helped turn Miami-Dade red because of his commitment to anti-communism, an important issue for key voting blocs in the county.
“We are a gateway state to the Americas. He's really made a name and a space for himself as a foreign policy expert with an understanding of his family’s past (as Cuban immigrants), which has been beneficial to his constituents,” said Oliva.
Rubio has worked to cultivate his current position after years of personal interest and effort since he first arrived in the U.S. Senate in 2011. He has served for years on the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees. He has been the vice chair of the Intelligence Committee for over a year, as well as the ranking member of the Foreign Relations’ Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women's Issues Subcommittee.
During his tenure, Rubio has been one of the Senate’s staunchest critics of the Chinese Communist Party, lambasting its treatment of Hong Kong and its foreign trade policy. His outspokenness hasn’t gone unnoticed: Rubio was sanctioned by China’s Foreign Ministry in 2020 and targeted by the country’s media for proposing an oil export ban on China last year.
Based on his public statements and filed legislation, the senator appears to be on course to go even further in his opposition to China and other foreign adversaries over during his third term. In an op-ed published by The American Conservative this month, Rubio said he believes many U.S. foreign policy professionals aren’t taking China and other rivals seriously enough.
“Many of our so-called experts came of age after the Cold War. As such, their worldview was shaped by the naive belief that liberal democracy is the inevitable end-state of every nation,” Rubio wrote. “But we live in a different era with different needs. We need to recognize that China led by Xi Jinping is just as great a threat as the Soviet Union ever was, if not an even greater one.”
Rubio gunning for China isn’t just clear in his words but also in his actions. Less than a week after the election, he filed a bill that would ban TikTok, the social media platform owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance, which is linked to the CCP. He also promised to pursue penalties for foreign investment in countries like China while pledging to bring capital back stateside.
The senator’s influence faces one immovable roadblock, however: The Republican implosion outside of Florida, which has Rubio operating in a Democratic-controlled body. Justin Sayfie, a lobbyist and former Jeb Bush adviser, said that might not hinder Rubio’s foreign policy goals, however, because of the work he has already done, the relationships he has forged and the bipartisan nature of opposition to communism abroad, China in particular. “I am sure he will remain passionate about it,” Sayfie said.
Rubio already has demonstrated a willingness to reach across the aisle, including a warm relationship he developed with Democratic former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, now the NASA administrator. He has collaborated with chairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, a fellow Cuban American, on several co-introduced bills since becoming vice chair. His TikTok bill has a Democratic co-sponsor, U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois.
Still, his tune could change based on his 2024 plans. “The real question is, does he plan on running for president again?” Zelden said. “If he does, that changes his dynamic because he can’t then be viewed as cooperating with Democrats too much to be competitive in a Republican primary.” Rubio’s spokesperson declined City & State’s request for comment for this story, instead pointing to his American Conservative op-ed.
In the meantime, while some cooperation across the aisle is likely to continue, Rubio has signaled – including in his victory speech – that he isn’t satisfied with Democrats’ or Republicans’ handling of issues affecting working-class Americans. “The people who make this country great have been forgotten and have been left behind," Rubio said in his election night victory speech.
In his op-ed, he argued that “Republicans and Democrats alike shield Wall Street from common-sense tax policies. Both parties sided with Warren Buffet over the rail workers. And both are content to run scorched-earth political campaigns that enrich consultants while tearing apart the fabric of our communities.” In fact, Rubio doubled down on his criticism of the 80 senators that voted to approve a labor agreement for rail workers that prevented them from striking. Supporters of the move argued that averting a rail strike was necessary to protect the country’s shaky economy.
Rubio said such actions illustrated how lawmakers prioritize profits over the well-being of the workers and their families. “Decades of this decadence and incompetence have brought America to the brink. Communities have been hollowed out, institutions torn down, faith marginalized, and the common good ignored,” he wrote.
“For the next six years, I will be laser-focused on rebuilding the Republican Party into a multi-ethnic, working-class coalition that is willing to fight for this country and usher in a new American century.” Rubio’s vision for his party and the reality of where his fellow GOP senators are may be at odds: On the rail issue, 37 Republicans in the Senate voted to block workers from striking.
Regarding Rubio’s op-ed, Zelden said his take “might be where he wants to be, but at the end of the day, he will do what is best for him politically and play in the sandbox of the Republican Party. He never is clear in which way he wants to be – a MAGA conservative or a mainstream, institutional conservative.”
Regardless of how the next two years in the Senate play out, the political world will be watching Rubio as it gets closer to the 2024 presidential election. He is releasing his third book, “Decades of Decadence,” in June. That’s around the same time that other current and possible presidential candidates DeSantis and Trump are releasing books of their own. Rubio also has leaned into accusations that U.S. schools are teaching critical race theory and “radical gender theory,” culture-war cries for the hard-core Republican base.
If Rubio does opt to mount another run for the White House, it could be another uphill slog. Across averages in several early Republican primary polls, he has finished seventh, with less than 2% support. That puts him behind Trump and DeSantis, but also trailing less popular figures like Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Ted Cruz.
A presidential run may well be a long shot he chooses not to play. Oliva said Rubio has the qualifications to be on the shortlist for important foreign policy appointments when a Republican next occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “I would certainly think that the next Republican administration will have Senator Rubio on the shortlist for secretary of state,” he said.
Such an appointment would depend heavily on who might lead the next Republican administration. Several people close to Rubio told City & State that he and DeSantis do not have a particularly close relationship. The prospect of bringing another prominent Florida name to an administration headlined by a former Florida governor might also be complicated politically.
On the other hand, Rubio and Trump’s relationship has vastly improved since their time sparring in the 2016 presidential primary. Trump was an early endorser for Rubio’s reelection and campaigned for him in 2022, calling him a “good friend” – something he didn’t do for DeSantis. Sayfie said an administration appointment is possible at some point in Rubio’s political career, but that his relative youth – just 51 entering his third term – means he could benefit from a longer stay in the Senate, building his resume, keeping a White House run or administration appointment open further down the road.
“A long, productive career in the United States Senate is a solid possibility,” Sayfie said. “Moving up the ranks, because it's a seniority-based system in the Senate, we can see him possibly being the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee at some point.”
Rubio has a surfeit of options available to him into 2024 and beyond, Oliva added: “He's a very young man in the world of politics. I'm sure that there are no opportunities that are closed to him.”