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Marco Rubio may face a Florida primary challenge in 2022. Here’s why.

“This is probably the only state where a Republican should fear a primary challenge from a Trumpist candidate, and Marco’s first in line,” says one GOP consultant.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. [ PATRICK SEMANSKY | AP ]
Published Dec. 17, 2020

At a weekend rally organized by Republicans outside Miami’s Freedom Tower, a crowd unified by the false belief that the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump gathered and waved Trump 2020 banners, American flags — and, in one case, a sign asking “Where’s Marco?”

Marco Rubio, Florida’s senior Republican U.S. senator, was not expected to attend the event, one of many protests planned around the country by Trump’s most dogged supporters. Though Rubio has not criticized Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of an election that made Democratic nominee Joe Biden the president-elect, he has stopped short of backing the president’s allegations of widespread voter fraud and at times acknowledged the lack of evidence to support the claims.

“Where is Marco, indeed?” Roger Stone, a former Trump adviser who spoke at the Sunday rally in Miami, wrote later on the social media site Parler. “A growing number of Florida Republicans are urging me to challenge Marco Rubio in the Republican primary.”

Stone, a self-described dirty trickster pardoned by Trump this year for lying to Congress, may have just been stirring the pot. He went on to say that, were he to run, he’d rather wait two years and challenge Florida’s junior Republican U.S. senator, Rick Scott, and also told the Daily Caller that he’s “friendly” with Rubio and “not likely to run for anything.”

But Stone’s flirtation with challenging Rubio’s bid for a third term underscores a new reality for Florida Republicans: In 2022, the greatest threat to most GOP incumbents may lie not on the left, but on the right — and in the perception that they’re not loyal enough to Trump.

“This is probably the only state where a Republican should fear a primary challenge from a Trumpist candidate, and Marco’s first in line,” said Jacob Perry, a former GOP campaign consultant in Florida who now runs a digital newsletter.

In a Wednesday interview on Capitol Hill, Rubio said he’s not worried that Trump supporters will turn against GOP officials who do not unequivocally back all of Trump’s claims.

“We’re a very diverse party, a very vibrant party, but I don’t worry,” Rubio said. “I think it’s mostly a creation by you guys, media people, that sort of focus on these things because it draws ratings and clicks.”

But since losing the Nov. 3 election, Trump has put Republicans on notice that anyone who bucks his false claim that the election was stolen from him could draw his ire.

Trump suggested that an Ohio Republican should run in the primary against Gov. Mike DeWine after the governor congratulated Biden last month on his victory. And during a rally in Georgia this month on behalf of two GOP U.S. senators, Trump encouraged an ally to challenge Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, whom Trump has reportedly deemed disloyal after he refused to take unprecedented steps to try and overturn Biden’s win in the state.

In Florida, Trump has had no need to make such threats. He won the state last month by nearly four percentage points — a relative blowout in a state known for tight contests — and Republicans have been largely supportive of his continued legal challenges.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who won the 2018 Florida GOP primary for governor thanks largely to Trump’s endorsement, encouraged the idea of faithless electors after the election. Panhandle Congressman Matt Gaetz has said lawmakers should consider contesting the election when they convene Jan. 6 to tabulate the results. And the state’s attorney general, Ashley Moody, was one of 17 attorneys general to back a Texas lawsuit seeking to have the U.S. Supreme Court invalidate election results in Georgia and three other battlegrounds that went for Biden.

The high court rejected the lawsuit, which was blasted by some Senate Republicans as a public relations stunt. But not before two-thirds of the 195 House Republicans — including 13 of Florida’s 16 GOP representatives — signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief encouraging justices to hear the case. Of the three who didn’t add their names, one is retiring, and a second said he simply missed a deadline, leaving Sarasota’s Vern Buchanan as the lone unexplained holdout returning to Congress in 2021.

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who was automatically reelected to a safe Republican seat representing northwest Miami-Dade County this summer when no Democrat filed to run against him, told the Miami Herald that he backed the Texas lawsuit because “there are valid questions as to whether or not there were constitutional violations by a number of states.” But some question whether political expedience is leading Florida’s GOP congressmen, particularly those in reliably red districts, to toe the Trump line on the election.

“They certainly didn’t sign onto it because they believe democracy is at stake,” said David Jolly, a former Tampa-area congressman who left the Republican Party in 2018. “They signed onto it because Trumpism is the prevailing mood of the party.”

Jolly, who according to the Tampa Bay Times might run for statewide office in 2022 as a third-party candidate, said he’s aware of two Florida Republicans who have already polled to gauge whether they should be worried about a primary challenge.

Does electoral vote change anything?

A Monday vote by the electoral college solidifying Biden’s win has loosened some Republicans’ resistance to acknowledge the results of the 2020 election. So far, with most of Florida’s GOP delegation continuing to back Trump’s legal challenges, there’s little sign that an insurgent wave is coming to knock out Republican incumbents, as happened in 2010 with the tea party movement.

But it’s early in the coming election cycle. And though the staying power of Trump’s influence remains to be seen, it seems likely that he will linger as a political force into the 2022 midterm elections, especially in Florida, given that the president is expected to return to his Palm Beach estate next month while considering another run for president.

“There is no way that Trump can sit this out,” said Perry, referring to Trump’s ability to influence the 2022 campaign cycle. “He’s too addicted to the power and the spotlight. The only wildcard in this is if Trump decides one of his own kids should run for Senate somewhere.”

For Rubio, a former state lawmaker who rode the tea party wave to an upset win over then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2010 Florida U.S. Senate race, a younger Trump run for Senate could be a problem. Rumors abound that Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter, could challenge Rubio in 2022 after reports emerged that she and her family are purchasing a lot in exclusive Indian Creek Village.

Ivanka Trump has declined to comment on the speculation. And on Monday, Politico reported that Florida GOP Chairman Joe Gruters said the reports were “just noise.”

Rubio, who has not backed unfounded claims by some supporters of the president that Venezuela and Cuba were involved in rigging the 2020 election, told the Miami Herald he wasn’t sure if there will be pro-Trump primary challenges to incumbents in 2022. But he said he remains confident that his work on the Paycheck Protection Program during the pandemic and hard-line stances on Cuba and China will be rewarded by GOP primary voters.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved over the last four years, a lot of it working with the president,” Rubio said. “We’ve achieved great things working hand-in-hand with the president on China, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, you name it. That’s why we worked so hard for his reelection and why I’m so proud he won Florida. We’re very proud about what we’ve done, but we have more to do.”

But the possibility of a challenge by Ivanka Trump or Roger Stone reflects the uncomfortable position in the middle that Rubio has earned by supporting Trump only to a point — and a warning to other Republicans.

“The first goal of any politician is to be reelected,” said Perry. “It’s something you have to keep in mind.”