Tea Party activists listen to Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) speak at an anti-immigration reform rally outside the U.S. Capitol on June 19, 2013
Congressman Steve King’s six-hour anti-immigration reform press conference/rally on Wednesday targeted a number of things: “amnesty” for “illegal aliens,” the CBO, Sharia law, and …Marco Rubio.
The Florida senator, elected in 2010 thanks to Tea Party backing, faced a backlash from a sizable crowd of conservative activists who attend the event outside the Capitol building in Washington. They’re unhappy with his role in crafting Senate’s immigration bill, which creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Audience members loudly booed Rubio’s name when it was mentioned by several speakers, including Robert Rector, the co-author of a controversial Heritage Foundation report on the cost of the Senate bill. Rector accused the senator of not reading “his own bill.”
“I think that he just bought himself a ticket home,” Jessica Hayes, a rally attendee who rose before dawn to drive from West Virginia to Washington, said of Rubio. “Whenever his term is up, he’ll be gone over this.”
That prediction may or may not come true. But the overall tenor of the rally shows that Rubio’s efforts to sell comprehensive immigration reform to conservatives hasn’t proven to be such an easy task.
Rubio has a tricky tightrope to walk on immigration. A potential 2016 presidential candidate, he still needs to keep the conservative grassroots happy. Simultaneously, he’s become a leader of an immigration-reform effort that that national Republican officials believe is critical to winning back Latino voters. But that’s alienated elements of the conservative base.
Rubio hasn’t shied away from the debate, though. He has spoken to Republican lawmakers about the bill and he’s routinely appeared on a wide array of conservative and mainstream media outlets to sell the bill on its policy merits, while saying he’d also like to see improvements in areas that conservatives have focused on, like border security.
“I think 95, 96 percent of the bill is in perfect shape and ready to go,” he said on ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday. “But there are elements that need to be improved.”
Even before Wednesday, Rubio has already felt some pressure in his home state over his stance on immigration. Tea Party protesters have picketed his Florida offices several times since the bill was released. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday shows that a plurality (41 percent) of all registered voters disapprove of his handling of the immigration issue, while 33 percent approve.
But it’s not as if Rubio is experiencing a widespread backlash as a result of his work on immigration. Fifty-one percent of Florida voters still approve of his overall job performance, including 84 percent of Republicans (up from 77 percent in December).
In reality, there are many conservatives who simply won’t be convinced by Rubio (or anyone) that passing immigration reform is a good idea. At one point on Wednesday, a crowd member shouted, “Don’t pass anything in the House,” eliciting cheers from his neighbors.
But some conservative activists just can’t shake the feeling that Rubio has abandoned them for greener pastures.
“He’s being influenced by establishment Republicans and others like Lindsey Graham and John McCain,” said Ronald King, a crowd member from North Carolina. “Marco Rubio is doing a deception here when he says, ‘We’re going to secure the border, don’t worry about it.’ Because it’s in the bill that the illegal aliens get their reward, legal status first.”