MIAMI - Florida is the final frontier for GOP presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, who must squeeze out a win in his home state Tuesday if he hopes to have even a remote chance of getting the nomination. But just as supporters shift from boasting about Rubio’s momentum to whispering and accepting his likely defeat, a last-ditch effort has emerged in the Sunshine State of another kind. Anti-Trump PACs are mounting a media blitz to thwart a Donald Trump win in Florida.
“There are only two people who can win Florida: Trump or Rubio, and right now it looks like Trump is going to win,” said Ford O’Connell, former adviser to John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “Rubio would have to clean up everything in South Florida, all 11.5 percent of the state’s voters there.… There’s only so much you can do, and Trump is literally running away with this.”
The most recent poll in Florida shows Rubio trailing Trump by 23 percentage points. While Rubio has made gains in the past few days, political scientists and strategists in the state remain skeptical that it will be enough to eke out a win.
“I think that Trump clearly has momentum, he has won the most states out of all of the candidates, and while (Ted) Cruz and Rubio have talked about their momentum—to quote Donald Trump—‘You have to be a winner at some point,’” said Ashley Walker, a 2012 state director for Obama’s presidential run.
But don’t tell that to Rubio.
The former Speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives is pulling out all of the stops leading up to Tuesday. The super PAC supporting his campaign, Conservative Solutions PAC, has rolled out a barrage of TV ads bashing Trump and highlighting Rubio’s career. His campaign has ramped up get-out-the-vote efforts in Broward and Palm Beach counties— two of the southern Florida regions that are most likely to vote for him. And he’s been covering every inch of the state, crisscrossing from Miami on Thursday to West Palm Beach on Friday to central and northern regions Saturday and Sunday.
It’s safe to say he’s not ready to admit defeat. When asked by a reporter on Friday what his next move would be if he didn’t win the nomination—Florida governor perhaps?—he bit back saying he is still running for president, and that’s where his focus is.
However, while Rubio is focused on Tuesday’s finish line, Republicans who aren’t part of his campaign are focusing on the deadline for another reason.
“Nothing can hurt the GOP establishment main stream more than Donald Trump as our nominee. He is beyond all consideration as a serious leader for a modern political party, he’s obviously unstable, seeking to provoke violence and division and hate,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime Florida Republican strategist. “I’m increasingly convinced it’s a moral imperative to stand in front of this guy.”
In the two weeks leading up to the primary, multiple super PACs have spent millions on anti-Trump attack ads in Florida. American Future Fund promoted a veterans against Trump video as well as an ad making fun of the candidate’s potty-mouth.
Our Principles PAC, formed by former Mitt Romney aide Katie Packer, released an ad focusing on Trump University. America Rising PAC and Club for Growth also are expected to be spending money in the state.
“It’s costing Trump about a point a day. All the groups have trackers running. We have areas that don’t have media coverage, and in the places that do, see him dropping in points,” said Wilson, who said he is in touch with many of the leaders of the PACs investing in Florida.
Wilson estimates that by the end of the day Tuesday, $20 million will have been spent on ads in the state—more than he says was spent on Rubio in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada combined.
It’s taken a while for the GOP establishment to coalesce against Trump. Rather than push full-on assaults of the front-runner, who has been leading in national polls for months, many of the GOP candidates instead chose to attack one another. The tactic was a way to wiggle up in the polls while avoiding the wrath of the media-hungry Trump, but critical experts say it gave the former reality TV star way too much time to establish his image without critique. Now republican groups against him are fighting against time.
“Here’s the problem for all of the other candidates, they failed political communications 101. They allowed Trump to define himself before they defined him,” O’Connell said. “The only way you can get Trump, outside of his core 30 to 35 percent of supporters, is you have to go after his character. You had to be drilling this narrative home three or four months ago. When you say something you have to give it two months for it to get beyond the echo chamber.”
One of the reasons the PACs and Rubio’s campaign have been slow to attack the front-runner in Florida goes back to the fight between Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who dropped out of the race in February.
“I think that his whole campaign in Florida and really nationwide has just not quite gotten off the ground as they would like, that’s probably for several reasons. A lot of the Florida support was split, but not split easily, between Rubio and Jeb Bush,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “Jeb Bush was definitely getting a lot of the Florida establishment support—so that created a little bit of a problem for Rubio right out of the gate.”
According to O’Connell, the Florida GOP holds a lot of the blame:
“They should have been doing it months ago in the state, if your goal was to stop Trump. I just don’t think they took Trump seriously. Forget if they liked Bush over Rubio, they just didn’t realize what a unique political animal Donald Trump was and they needed a coordinated effort and they didn’t because they were all divided on who their unique candidate was.”
But things get tricky following Tuesday’s election. If Trump loses Florida, there’s still the possibility of a brokered convention. If he wins there, though -- especially if he also wins in Ohio -- he is almost certainly the GOP nominee. And that leaves out a clear avenue for attack for the Republican groups who are against him.
“If Trump takes home 300 delegates on Tuesday, that means he’s going to have around 800. Then you have to say to yourself, why would you damage your own candidate?” O’Connell said. “You can’t damage your own candidate now because you’d be handing it to Hillary Clinton.”