Sen. Marco Rubio’s popularity has plummeted among tea party activists who say the Florida Republican, who helped ignite their movement with his 2010 Senate bid, has failed to live up to the hype — and made a major wrong turn by joining Sen. John McCain’s push to legalize illegal immigrants.
Tea partyers say their beef is not that Mr. Rubio is trying to fix the nation’s immigration system, but that the bill he helped write doesn’t repair the nation’s porous borders, even as it offers special pork to some lawmakers and expands the size of the federal government.
The criticism is a major change for a man who was intricately entwined with the tea party. The nascent movement backed Mr. Rubio early on as he chased establishment candidate Charlie Crist from the Republican primary en route to his 2010 general election victory.
“I have heard repeatedly from people in Florida that they are ready to look for primary challengers, and I have heard from people around this entire country that they don’t want him to be the presidential nominee in 2016,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.
It’s just one example of how the immigration debate already is playing into the 2016 presidential sweepstakes.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky flirted with supporting a broad immigration bill but ultimately backed off, saying he wasn’t convinced the borders would be secure. He voted against the final bill.
Mr. Rubio’s bill now faces dim prospects in the House, where his standing could be hurt even more if his conservative colleagues reject the legislation.
“The thing that is most baffling for me is that this man is willing to lose millions upon millions of votes he could have had from tea partyers for illegal votes that he will not get because he is not a Democrat,” said Ken Crow, an Iowa activist who formed TeaPartyCommunity.com.
“People are more angry about immigration than they were about Obamacare,” she said. “It is disheartening to work so hard to elect these conservatives and then see their base turn on them.”
Mr. Rubio took a gamble this year when he signed up with three fellow Republicans to be one of the bipartisan gang. Republicans in the Gang of Eight said the GOP must embrace a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants if the party hopes to compete for Hispanics’ votes.
The Gang of Eight’s bill would legalize illegal immigrants but withhold full citizenship for more than a decade, giving the Department of Homeland Security time to spend more money on border security.
The final Senate vote was 68-32, with 14 Republicans voting in favor of the bill and all 32 opposing votes coming from the rest of the chamber’s Republicans.