File Marco Rubio’s Senate career under “Missed Opportunities.”
As a senator-slash-presidential candidate, Rubio came off as a soft-serve, pre-programmed Republican Party golden child, an immensely talented communicator who didn’t care much for his day job in Washington. He had the worst voting record in the Senate in 2015—casting just three votes during the 2016 campaign. This and his absence from the Sunshine State drew the ire of his constituents for being AWOL from in-state crises as he jetted across the country on the presidential campaign trail.
But the first two months of his post-presidential career seem to have produced an entirely different Marco Rubio.
He has flipped his worst-in-the-Senate voting record into the best—100% since the day he dropped his primary bid. His schedule has transformed from an anywhere-but-Florida itinerary to traveling the state like Floridians once hoped he would. After a two year-absence from an ongoing ecological disaster on the state’s East Coast, Rubio returned to the scene after he dropped out of the campaign. He’s gone to to Orlando to talk about the heroin crisis and to Jacksonville to bust the landlords of a dilapidated HUD-sponsored apartment complex there.
Rubio has also gone back to the un-glamorous work of pushing bills and amendments to help his home state, work that mostly fell by the wayside after 2014. A long-expected Everglades cleanup bill is on the move, as is a bill to reform HUD properties like the one in Jacksonville. Last week, he stepped out as a lone Republican to support President Obama’s request for $1.9 billion to combat the Zika virus, which has already arrived in Florida. With seven months left, he has even re-launched a low-budget YouTube series of him answering constituent mail, another local effort he abandoned years ago as his presidential hopes grew.
It’s such an unusual comeback story that Rubio’s next move after he retires from the Senate at the end of the year has become one of the great Washington guessing games—he’s running for governor in 2018! President in 2020! No wait, it’s not too late to run for Senate again in 2016, even if there are already five Republicans running!
Local Republican operatives in Florida say the talk of Rubio running for Senate is just short of ludicrous and running for governor is a little far-fetched. Both races already feature several Republicans better positioned than Rubio to win.
For his part, Rubio has insisted repeatedly that he will return to the private sector in January and that a run for Senate or governor, or a job as a lobbyist or on Wall Street, are all out of the question.
If he has other plans, he isn’t saying and he has returned to Twitter after months away to rant about anonymous sources who claim to know otherwise. “I have only said like 10,000 times I am going to be a private citizen in January,” he tweeted late one night last week.
When the TODAY Show tagged along on Rubio’s trip to Jacksonville to see Rubio bust the tenement landlords there, the resulting segment featured only speculation about Rubio’s future in politics. Once again, Rubio got on his Twitter feed to call them out. “Invited @TodayShow b/c told us they would focus on terrible living conditions at HUD projects like this.They turned into political piece.”
Colleagues on Capitol Hill say the biggest difference between White-House-hopeful Rubio and YOLO Rubio has been his demeanor. The tightly wound, risk-averse candidate seems both looser and more focused now that he has nothing left to lose.
“He’s jumped right back in. I think he’s a lot happier than he was,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, who endorsed Rubio’s presidential bid. “He’s got that perpetual smile on his face that he didn’t have during the campaign.”
Unlike Sen. Ted Cruz, whose return to the Senate has garnered a collective eye-roll from Republican senators, Rubio’s old colleagues predict he could still have a big future on the national stage.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Rubio’s fellow candidate in 2016, said Rubio has seemed upbeat back at his day job and that he’ll be very important for Republicans in the future. “We’re going to have to grow our presence in the Hispanic community,” Graham said. “He can help in national security. He’s been very good and his voice is going to be valuable over time.”
If his fellow senators are bullish about Rubio’s future in politics, many of his constituents aren’t coming around so quickly.
“I did notice his 100% voting,” said Richard Martinson, a retired firefighter who lives on the banks of the St. Lucie River. “It’s a little too late for that.”
Richardson spoke with the Daily Beast in March about what he saw as Rubio’s inaction in the environmental disaster that has devastated the river community where Martinson lives. His opinion of Rubio hasn’t improved even with Rubio’s recent efforts to focus on the state. Capt. Rodney Smith, a Florida angler also struggling with the disaster, agreed. “I wish today’s Rubio was the one we had on our side three or four years ago,” Smith said.
Sentiments like that are why Rubio’s approval rating in the state is now at its lowest level since he took office in 2011. Any they’re enough of a reason alone for Rubio to be back at work so aggressively making up for lost time.
He may never return to the Boy Wonder image that he had when he was first elected, but Rubio’s latest work in the Senate could leave a lasting impact on Florida for years to come, whether or not his name ever appears on a ballot again.
Tim Mak contributed to this report.