WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio has lost standing among conservative activists for his lead role in immigration reform but continues to collect millions in campaign dollars, emerging as one of the most prolific fundraisers in the country and underscoring his national ambitions.
The money chase continues today when the Florida Republican appears at a barbecue restaurant alongside some of Washington's top lobbyist-fundraisers. Admission ranges from $500 to $10,000.
Rubio this year alone has raised more than $5 million — a mix of small-dollar donations from average folks across the country to $5,000 checks from corporate interests — which he has poured into a team of strategists and to expand a national fundraising network.
"If you want to be president, you hire political consultants, fundraisers. People who work on your brand. That's pretty clear what he's done," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan authority on campaign finance.
Rubio's operation has stoked such speculation because so little has been spent on supporting other candidates, the ostensible purpose of committees such as his Reclaim America PAC. In 2011-12, he gave candidates just 4 percent of the PAC's collections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Rubio's team counters that it took money and time to build the operation and pointed to an uptick in help to other politicians, more this year than any other senator. In May, Reclaim America spent more than $100,000 on a TV ad defending New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte against gun-control critics. (Bonus: She's from the first-in-the-nation primary state.)
He also contributed $30,000 for ads against Sen. Mark Pryor, a vulnerable Democrat in Arkansas up for re-election next year. On Tuesday, Rubio endorsed Tom Cotton, the Republican facing down Pryor, and emailed a fundraising solicitation.
Rubio plans to support four or five Senate candidates, said Terry Sullivan, an operative who oversees Reclaim America. He noted that Rubio's support often comes in the form of appearances on behalf of other candidates, including dozens for Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee.
"This year he's redoubled his efforts to help conservative candidates and causes," Sullivan said. "You'll continue to see him use the Reclaim America PAC to travel the country campaigning with and raising money for other conservative candidates."
On Monday, Rubio raised money in Richmond, Va., for gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli. The payoff for Rubio is exposure in an important presidential battleground.
An extensive direct mail and email operation allows Rubio to collect checks from across the country, usually in amounts of $200 or less. But he has also taken his show on the road.
While Congress was on summer recess last month, he headed to California for a half-dozen fundraisers. In April, he touched down in Las Vegas and met with uber-donor casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. He has gone to New York for meetings with top Wall Street donors.
Tonight's fundraiser at Hill Country BBQ will show off the latest addition to Rubio's arsenal: a steering committee of lobbyists and fundraisers. The group is led by Dirk Van Dongen, who is president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors. Last year Van Dongen raised $1.4 million for Romney, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The fundraising prowess comes at a delicate time for Rubio, who has been damaged among the tea party activist base that helped elevate him to national prominence in 2010. Once an opponent of "amnesty," Rubio embraced a comprehensive approach that would lead to legal status (and eventually citizenship) for millions of illegal immigrants provided they paid fines. He was heckled at a conservative gathering in Orlando late last month, and polls have shown him taking a hit.
But the fundraising machine chugs on. In the second quarter, Rubio raised $3 million, up from the $2.28 million he raised in the first three months of the year.
His involvement in immigration may have even helped. A number of companies and groups with a stake in the debate wrote $5,000 checks to Rubio, including Google, Microsoft and SpaceX.
Rubio's campaign has emphasized the small dollar donations that have poured in from across the country. In an email last week he played up efforts to defund Obamacare, a politically quixotic goal but nonetheless popular among conservatives.
But the biggest checks come from special interests. Among the groups maxing out with $5,000 donations are the American Bankers Association; Koch Industries; Goldman Sachs; Northrop Grumman; AT&T; Florida Power & Light; and the pharmaceutical giant Abbott Laboratories.
Bob Spencer, president of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, wrote a $5,000 check this year, too. In an interview Tuesday, Spencer said he liked Rubio's focus on small business. Alluding to the immigration debate, he said Rubio's standing as a potential presidential candidate had taken a hit.
"Once minute you are the dessert of the day and the next minute you are down," he said. "But he's got a realistic outlook. You've got to look at the long term."