Rubio rises in the West

Western endorsements have the Florida senator and GOP presidential hopeful surging.


Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had a pretty good first week of November — thanks to some Western friends. In just 72 hours, the Republican presidential hopeful grabbed endorsements from Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, who, respectively, claimed Rubio represents “a new generation of leadership,” “the next generation of conservative leadership,” and “a fresh view to the many challenges facing America today.” The Western wave of support followed the October 28 Republican debate, held in Boulder, and it could prove critical for Rubio’s chances of snagging his party’s nomination.

Senator Marco Rubio touring the US-Mexico border fence with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents
Sen. Marco Rubio's office

That’s because of something called the “invisible primary,” which refers to the seemingly interminable period of crowded debate stages and blustery rallies that precedes the start of caucus and primary season in February. Even before a vote is cast in Iowa or New Hampshire, endorsements doled out by politicians now can sway nomination outcomes. The 2008 book The Party Decides by Martin Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller found that, dating back to 1980, endorsements have become the most accurate predictor of parties’ eventual nominees. Recent research by University of Denver political science professor Seth Masket and colleagues found that party endorsements in California have even boosted candidates’ support as much as 10 percent.

The influence of the invisible primary suggests that Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who continue to dominate polls, are likely to fade away to more established GOP presidential candidates, such as Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, or even Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex. The crowded field has meant party politicians aren’t rushing to endorse a presumptive frontrunner, yet are also anxious to get behind a promising “establishment candidate.”

Enter the Western senators, whose endorsements immediately elevated Rubio’s standing in the invisible primary. The website FiveThirtyEight tracks and weights endorsements (five House reps are worth a senator; two senators are worth a governor). It now has Rubio neck and neck with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been endorsement-less since July, and closing in on Bush, who gathered most of his endorsements before this fall.

Rubio’s rise out West is especially notable after Bush courted regional supporters this October with an initiative to shift Interior Department offices and resources to the West to boost local input into decisions over management of federal lands, natural resources and energy leases. If that plan was meant to garner support from Westerners, it fell flat. The New Republic notes that the endorsement from Gardner, “a rising star in Republican ranks,” is particularly significant, since his backing “could help cement the idea that Rubio is at the vanguard of the next generation of Republican leaders.” 

“In the endorsement stage, this kind of stuff can matter a good deal,” Masket says. “In this case, Rubio can pretty quickly outpace Bush in terms of the number of endorsements and, on the day that happens, it will look like a tipping point.”

So, what does Marco Rubio offer the West?

In a statement to High Country News, Sen. Risch expanded on his initial endorsement:

“I endorsed Senator Rubio because I believe he offers real-world solutions for the many challenges facing our country today. Being a senator from a Western state that has unique natural resource and public lands challenges, I have been very interested over the years that I’ve known Senator Rubio in his understanding and response to our Western state’s needs. Every time I have spoken with him about our needs on challenges from funding of fire suppression all the way to sage grouse, he has been interested, engaged, and offered constructive action for those issues. I have every confidence he will be a president who will be very sensitive to our Western issues.”

Like nearly every other GOP candidate with a voting record, Rubio has a measly rating from the League of Conservation Voters environmental scorecard. Rubio proclaims on his campaign website that, if president, he will “undo the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Rule,” and “fight EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and excessive application of the Endangered Species Act.” He also backs approving the Keystone XL pipeline and “empower(ing) states and tribes to control onshore energy development within their borders.”

That last platform plank is worrisome, according to the Center for American Progress, which suggests Rubio’s energy policy could signal an epic move to ask Congress to hand ownership of federally owned oil, gas and coal to the states. In an October report, the Center’s staff writes: “Such a shift would give state governors unprecedented power to sell drilling and mining rights in America’s national forests, national parks, and other public lands; to waive environmental protections; and to seize revenues owed to U.S. taxpayers. It also speaks to a key priority of anti-government activists: weakening the federal government.” Then again, the same report notes at least six other Republican candidates have also supported transferring control or ownership of federal lands and resources to state and local governments.

Neither Rubio’s campaign nor the Western senators’ offices responded to questions over whether the endorsements were coordinated — possibly to flex some Western muscle for the candidate. But it’s clear the region and the purple-hued and increasingly Latino-populated states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada will play key roles in the 2016 election. Rubio even name-dropped New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez as a possible running mate last week.

“The West is this unaligned area so far and it’s also seen as a pretty critical area in general elections, so a candidate wants to be able to demonstrate some strength,” says Masket. “It’s interesting that you have people from this region starting to look like they’re unifying behind a single candidate.”

Joshua Zaffos is an HCN correspondent based in Fort Collins, Colorado. Follow him @jzaffos.

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