The Florida senator hopes to thwart Trump while protecting his own political future.
Marco Rubio won’t be endorsing Ted Cruz during the Republican presidential primary, but he’s likely to back the Texas senator at a contested convention — if it gets that far.
The de facto plan, Rubio’s backers say, is designed to help Cruz. It also, however, protects Rubio’s political future, including if he decides to make another run for the White House.
Immediately after Rubio dropped out of the presidential contest following his home state March 15 loss, the Florida senator told supporters he would endorse Cruz under two conditions: if the Texas senator wanted the endorsement and if it would make a difference. But Rubio came to believe that neither Cruz nor he would really gain from an endorsement so far.
“At this point, No. 1, it’s not a year where endorsements matter very much,” Rubio told POLITICO. “And No. 2: I’ll just let it play itself out and work through it. I really want to come back and focus 100 percent on my work in the senate.”
Rubio has already helped Cruz by renting him his fundraising list, calling him “the only conservative left in the race,” withdrawing his name from the primary ballot in select states so as not to siphon votes from Cruz and petitioning to hang on to some of the 171 delegates he won to keep them from going to Donald Trump.
Just as those maneuvers helped Cruz or weakened Trump’s prospects, Rubio is likely waiting for a contested Republican National Convention to make his next big move.
“Marco has significant political capital: his delegates, the delegates he won and those delegates who would show up at the convention and, when unbound from another candidate, would listen to what Rubio would say,” said one Rubio insider.
“Marco wants Donald to lose. If he thought his endorsement would help in California or in Indiana, which it won’t, then he would probably do it,” the source said. “But what Marco isn’t going to do is just endorse Ted, watch Trump win anyway and then, in four years, watch Cruz use Marco’s endorsement against him if they both run for president again,” the source said.
Asked about swinging delegates at a contested convention to Cruz, Rubio said he’ll discuss it later.
“We’ll see if it gets to that point. Indiana will vote Tuesday and a handful of states after that, and if Donald Trump has 1,237 delegates or more, he’s going to be the nominee. And if he doesn’t, then I’ll see,” Rubio said. “We’ll talk about it at that time, but that’s neither something at this point I can influence, really.”
Trump’s prospect for winning the 1,237 delegates needed look relatively good. He so far has 996 to Cruz’s 565. Trump is the only candidate not mathematically eliminated from amassing enough delegates before the convention.
“It’s going to play itself out. Voters are deciding,” Rubio continued. “If Donald Trump continues to win by the margins he won in the last couple of Tuesdays, he’s going to be the nominee. And if he can’t, than something different might happen.”
At a contested convention, Rubio would likely win a prime speaking slot as well, reinforcing his importance as a political player in national GOP politics.
Officials for Cruz’s campaign would not comment for this story.
Rubio donors also worry about an endorsement that could have negative consequences for Rubio if he and Cruz run against each other in 2020.
“A lot of our donors haven’t done much for Cruz because they don’t really see him winning anyway. Many of them don’t really like him. And they think like, with Marco’s endorsement, it really won’t do much. And some of them have told him that Cruz would just use the endorsement as a cudgel against him,” another Rubio insider said. “There’s no gain.”
Rubio donors haven’t been too keen on contributing to Cruz. According to BuzzFeed, only 120 of the Florida senator’s former presidential donors gave to Cruz since the Florida primary, offering a total of about $126,650.
But it’s not as if Rubio and his supporters want Cruz to lose this year; quite the opposite.
“Trust me, for us, the best scenario is for Ted Cruz to be the nominee this year,” another top supporter said. “It would knock Trump out. Then Cruz would run against Hillary and get slaughtered and he won’t be our problem in four years if Marco runs again. And I think he’ll run again.”
Rubio wouldn’t discuss those scenarios. He said 2020 is so far away and “I don’t even know what I’ll be doing in January 2017” when he leaves the senate.
Some die-hard Rubio backers don’t want to wait four more years. They hope he could emerge as a consensus candidate at a contested convention, but Rubio said that’s not how the process will work. The nominee will likely be Trump or Cruz, people who have won a significant number of states, not someone who barely competed in the contest or didn’t compete at all.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a white knight,” Rubio said when asked if he’d be interested in getting the nomination. “I’ve spent zero time thinking about that, were not working on anything like that. It’s not going to happen.”
Asked if that’s a “no” to being a “white knight,” Rubio quickly answered in the affirmative: “Yeah.”