If the “tea party” is the story of 2010, then Marco Rubio’s rise from anti-establishment challenger to senator-elect is the story of the insurgent movement itself.
Long before Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, Joe Miller or Mike Lee ousted the establishment’s hand-picked candidates in their respective Senate primaries, Mr. Rubio was the original crasher for the inside-the-Beltway crowd’s party. He chased the Washington establishment’s hand-picked candidate, Gov. Charlie Crist, from the Republican Party and cruised to win Florida’s open Senate seat in Tuesday’s election.
Now, Mr. Rubio and other new lawmakers will have to meld that mandate for change with a Washington establishment wary of them and even more afraid of the forces that powered them to office.
Tea party activists say there’s good reason to fear.
“This movement has grown so furiously fast, so strong and so quickly. They may bet on us falling away and getting bored and watching reality TV, but this movement is unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” said Tom Gaitens, a tea party leader and Florida field director for FreedomWorks. “We’re coming after them. Politics is not being played the way it has been. There’s just not enough money to do it their way anymore.”
It says a lot about the tea party that Mr. Rubio’s election victory was almost an afterthought.
His fortunes rose just as tea partiers were beginning to make themselves heard and as the civil war for the soul of the GOP heated up, with precursor battles in a special congressional election in New York late last year and then Republican Scott Brown’s surprising victory in a special election in Massachusetts to fill the seat of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
He got early backing from the so-called grass-tops organizations such as FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group led by former House Republican Leader Dick Armey, and the American Conservative Union, which voted to make Mr. Brown’s campaign a major project.
“I’ve spent more time this year across America than I have in Washington. I was amazed at the extent to which people all across the country were discovering this guy,” said Mr. Armey, who has become a major organizer in the tea party movement. “I believe to a large extent in this grass-roots movement, Marco Rubio has become the face of change.”
Along the way, the Cuban-American built credibility with the values voters and the limited-government sides of the Republican Party, including delivering the keynote speech at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference that marked him as a star.
“In my political lifetime, you can count the number of people like that on one hand,” said David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “Rubio is one of them.”
In addition to their limited-government, spending-cuts philosophy, the tea party has been defined by a readiness to defy the edicts from Washington party leaders about which candidates to support.
Mr. Armey said he was stunned to see how quickly the National Republican Senatorial Committee anointed Mr. Crist its candidate in the Florida race last year.
For the national party, the governor checked all boxes he could raise money, he cut a good figure on television and they presumed he was popular among Republicans. But activists on the ground saw a governor who had literally embraced President Obama during the stimulus debate, and told conservative leaders in Washington that there was an alternative in Mr. Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House.
Buoyed by the same forces driving the tea party, Mr. Rubio steadily gained in the polls among Republicans, and Mr. Crist cratered. The governor eventually abandoned the GOP and ran as an independent, leaving Mr. Rubio an easy path to the party nomination.
Since then, Mr. Rubio has been joined by Mrs. Angle in Nevada, Mr. Buck in Colorado, Mr. Miller in Alaska, Mr. Lee in Utah, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, among others who ousted establishment-picked Senate candidates. They were joined by giant-killer tea-party-backed candidates in House and state office races across the country.
Mr. Keene said he expects Mr. Rubio will soon be part of the White House picture.
“Unless he screws up, there isn’t any limit,” Mr. Keene said. “If he’s successful in the next few years in the Senate, he’s an obvious I think two years is too soon, but he’s an obvious vice-presidential or presidential candidate.”
Bill Bunting, a member of the state GOP committee and a key figure in the state’s gun rights movement, said that as a concealed-carry permit holder, Mr. Rubio earns major credibility with that key constituency. He said Mr. Rubio is “just like a rock star” when he campaigns at gun shows.
Mr. Rubio also has a solid pro-life record, opposes same-sex marriage and has called for a balanced-budget amendment.
The chances for missteps will only grow, though, once Mr. Rubio arrives in Washington. Awaiting him and his tea party colleagues is a host of tough decisions on taxes, spending cuts and the leftovers of Mr. Obama’s first-term agenda.
Tea party leaders said they’ll be watching closely to see whether Washington-itis infects their champions.
“We’re planning on some serious ways to create a metric by which we observe these legislators and keep them accountable,” Mr. Gaitens said. “The real problems are not Nov. 2; the real problems become the governing of Nov. 3.”
Mr. Bunting put it more bluntly: “I think that the people that have gotten him here, the grass-roots people throughout the state of Florida like myself, are going to make sure he lives up to that.”
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