For the first time in a year, Rubio stood in front of a crowd at a plumbing equipment warehouse in northern Virginia, a well-heeled part of the country that overwhelmingly supported him over Donald Trump during last year’s Republican presidential primary.
But as Rubio emerged to stump for gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie with Christian rock music blaring, a protester grabbed the microphone from Gillespie and demanded an end to immigrant deportations. Rubio stood off to the edge, displaying no visible emotion as the crowd shouted and grabbed the protester’s sign as she was escorted off stage.
“That was perfect, the timing, because I haven’t given a campaign speech in about a year so I’m a little rusty, I needed some warmup time,” Rubio said.
Rubio then began a speech that avoided certain hot-button social issues, like keeping Confederate statues in place that have galvanized some Republicans in certain parts of the country since Trump’s election. Instead, he talked mostly about jobs, though he did wade into his signature issue, Latin America, as he referenced the violent MS-13 gang, a frequent Trump villain with roots in El Salvador.
“I don’t want to get in the middle of all these fights ... but I got to say it, I come from a community that itself has been impacted by ... gang violence,” Rubio said.
Staying out of intraparty fights while building goodwill across wide swaths of the Republican Party is Rubio’s clear strategy heading into the 2018 elections, as the one-time and maybe-again presidential contender copes with a president who has low approval ratings and a resurgent GOP populist wing that is willing to cause trouble within the ranks.
Trump-inspired figures like Breitbart editor and former White House adviser Steve Bannon are engaging in open warfare with establishment-minded figures like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and two sitting Republican senators targeted by Bannon have already decided not to seek reelection in 2018.
But as Bannon and his disciples attack Republicans for failing to fully embrace Trump’s populist-oriented message, Rubio has stayed largely out of the fray. Rubio doesn’t have any plans to endorse Alabama judge Roy Moore, a Republican running for an open U.S. Senate seat who once declared that a Muslim should never serve in Congress. And Rubio was also relatively mum on the decision by GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, a harsh Trump critic, to retire after campaigning for him in Arizona less than two weeks before his announcement.
“I have disagreements with the White House and I have been able to address some of them privately and a couple of them more publicly, whether it was the initial response in Puerto Rico or some of the foreign policy issues in different parts of the world,” Rubio said. “But my view is this: 95 percent of what is going to happen to me today, I cannot control. What I can control is how I react to what happens. And what I’ve chosen to do more than ever is focus like a laser on the things I can control and get done.”
North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and an ally of Bannon’s, praised Rubio’s work on Capitol Hill one year into his second term.
“He gets no criticisms from me,” Meadows said. “Actually, we’re working very closely on the child tax credit that he’s working with Ivanka [Trump]. I think he’s doing a great job on that. I think he has an idea that it needs to be higher than what it is.”
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