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Among some Florida Republicans, hope that Ivanka Trump will challenge Marco Rubio

Though unlikely, she could pose a serious challenge, aided by her father’s name and the huge pile of campaign money he built up on his way out of office.
Ivanka Trump speaks during a 2020 campaign event at Bayfront Park Amphitheater in Miami.
Ivanka Trump speaks during a 2020 campaign event at Bayfront Park Amphitheater in Miami. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Feb. 12
Updated Feb. 12

It’s a tantalizing prospect for some Republicans — and Democrats as well: Would Ivanka Trump run for the Senate against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio?

For hard-line Trump supporters, it could be a vindication of a man they view as a martyr and a chance to carry on the Trump wave, possibly producing another future president.

For Democrats, it would represent the fracturing of the Republican Party, many of whose leaders want to wean the GOP from Trump but are afraid to say so openly.

For everyone else, it would be a contest between a mediagenic celebrity versus a prominent senator once seen as the future of his party, but now with some political wounds.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, during a break in the first impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, during a break in the first impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. [ SUSAN WALSH | AP ]

According to interviews this week with a dozen or so Florida Republicans, ranging from grassroots activists to high-level insiders, it’s probably not going to happen. Few think Trump would mount a primary challenge against Rubio.

If she did, she could pose a serious challenge, aided by her father’s name and campaign charisma and the huge pile of campaign money he built up on his way out of office. But no one firmly predicted she would win.

The interviews also suggested different feelings about her potential candidacy at different levels in the party.

High-level insiders, many of whom wouldn’t talk on the record for fear of angering one side or the other, all said there is virtually no chance Trump would run. Some cited her three young children as well as political calculations.

Even mega-lobbyist and Trump ally Brian Ballard, among the few insiders who agreed to talk openly, discounted the possibility.

“Should Marco Rubio choose to run for re-election — and I hope he will — he will be the Republican nominee,” said Ballard. “I haven’t spoken to Ivanka Trump, but I don’t believe she will run.

Florida lobbyist Brian Ballard. (Alex Leary  |  Times)
Florida lobbyist Brian Ballard. (Alex Leary | Times)

“Marco Rubio is a bright star in our party, an important leader in the Senate, and he was exceptionally loyal to Trump. It would make no sense for anyone to challenge him.”

Grassroots-level activists from the invincibly loyal Trump base were more optimistic, saying support for the father could transfer to the daughter. That support carried Trump to a 3.3-point Florida win in 2020, a virtual landslide in the evenly divided state.

“Donald Trump is still totally popular among Republicans, at least in my area in Sun City Center. I can’t say it strongly enough,” said Dick Inglis, president of the large retiree community’s Republican Club. “And I think more than 90 percent of the people who like Donald Trump would vote for his daughter.”

Asked for comment from Rubio, a spokesman responded by noting a recent posting by a South Florida Republican blogger, Javier Manjarres, quoting an unnamed former Trump administration official as saying Ivanka has made it clear she will not run.

Asked by a Fox News interviewer in January about a Trump challenge, Rubio didn’t respond directly but said he expects “a competitive race.”

“If you’re going to run statewide in the state of Florida, you’re going to have a tough race, and that might include a primary,” he said. “That’s their right under our system. I don’t own the Senate seat.”

Email and phone messages to spokespeople for the Trump family produced no response from Ivanka Trump.

Her recent move to Miami with her family would make her eligible to run for federal offices from Florida next year, but residency requirements would rule out high-level state offices.

Unseating a senator in a primary, particularly one who has achieved Rubio’s level of prominence on issues including foreign policy, isn’t easy. Roll Call magazine reported recently that incumbent senators have lost primaries only nine times in 40 years.

The GOP establishment, with its high-dollar donors, likely would support Rubio.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee campaign organization, recently told reporters the NRSC will support incumbents, brushing off the possibility of primary challenges by Trump family members.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., speaks to reporters following a Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Washington.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., speaks to reporters following a Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Washington. [ MANUEL BALCE CENETA | AP ]

“I’m supporting incumbents,” Scott said. Asked specifically about an Ivanka Trump run, he said, “Nobody has talked to me about it at all. Nobody. I’ve tried to call around. Nobody’s said anything about Florida,” according to Politico. https://www.rollcall.com/2021/02/03/can-ivanka-trump-defeat-marco-rubio/

Susie Wiles of Jacksonville, a senior adviser to both of Trump’s Florida campaigns, said she “fully” believes Rubio will run for re-election and win.

Susie Wiles, a lobbyist and veteran political consultant.
Susie Wiles, a lobbyist and veteran political consultant.

“The overarching issue is Sen. Rubio has been a very good senator and that is the reason he should be re-elected.”

Rubio, a bilingual Miamian known for tough anti-Castro stances, could undercut the South Florida Hispanic support that helped Donald Trump win Florida in 2020, some political operatives said.

There’s been little published polling recently on Rubio’s job approval ratings, but through early 2020 his approval among Republicans was over 60 percent, according to the Morning Consult data intelligence company.

But his fluidity on issues has sometimes caused him trouble with his statewide conservative base.

Rubio’s national prominence grew out of the Tea Party movement, which helped him beat former Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2010 Senate race.

But one of the first major bills Rubio sponsored in the Senate, the 2013 “gang of eight” immigration reform bill, caused a backlash from conservatives who called it “amnesty.” Rubio reversed himself and opposed the bill he helped write and sponsored.

“There are some people who say Marco Rubio isn’t Republican enough,” said long-time Pinellas County GOP activist Nancy Riley — though she said she would support him in a primary.

Inglis, of Sun City Center, cited Rubio’s vote to certify Electoral College votes from states that went for Biden, and said, “I’m not awfully happy with what Marco Rubio has been doing lately.”

Ivanka Trump, he said, “would follow through with her father’s platform.”

Former Pasco County GOP Chairman Randy Evans mentioned the “gang of eight” bill and said simply having worked with her father would be Ivanka Trump’s “big advantage.”

Trump Florida campaign strategist Karen Giorno said she doesn’t know whether Ivanka Trump is interested in a race against Rubio, but said Trump “would be formidable” if she ran.

“Sen. Rubio has given voters mixed messages as to where he stands on various issues and what type of Republican he is,” she said. “Until he clears that up, there are people who will not support him again. But there is a very strong group of Rubio supporters as well.”

But Trump could also have problems with the base.

Some Republicans cited her record of contributions to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Sen. Chuck Schumer, which continued until 2014. Others cited her devotion to issues including paid family leave and child care access, which they said her father wouldn’t otherwise have backed.

“She has gotten him to sponsor some things the far right doesn’t like,” said Riley.

Rubio, meanwhile, appears to be trying to immunize himself against accusations that he isn’t pro-Trump enough.

Following his vote to certify Biden’s Electoral College win, he has become one of the loudest voices in the Senate against the second impeachment, arguing that it’s divisive and pointless, even though he also has acknowledged that Trump “bears responsibility for some of what happened " in the Capitol riot.

In a Florida Republican Party quarterly meeting in Orlando last month, Rubio gave a speech praising Trump and got an enthusiastic reception from the crowd, according to attendees.

In a Fox News interview Jan. 24, he called the impeachment “stupid” and “counterproductive,” and compared it to pouring gasoline on a fire. In a press interview Jan. 27, he said – falsely, according to Politifact — that it sets a bad precedent because, “only in the Third World do you see this habitual use of prosecution of former leaders.