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.
Mr. Rubio’s potential rivals who also serve in the Senate took a different tact.
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.
So did Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has repeatedly bashed the bill Mr. Rubio helped craft as part of the Senate “Gang of Eight.”
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.
Amy Kremer of Tea Party Express said Mr. Rubio has been hurt by his stance and that mending fences will be nearly impossible.
“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.
Just ahead of the vote, Mr. Rubio took to the Senate floor to defend himself and his bill. He said he is convinced it will secure the borders and prevent another round of illegal immigration.
He said millions of illegal immigrants have been living in the U.S. with little chance of being deported, amounting to a de facto amnesty.
He also said he is bothered by the division with many of his former supporters.
“To hear the worry, anxiety and growing anger in the voices of so many people who helped me get elected to the Senate, who I agree with on virtually every other issue, has been a real trial for me,” he said. “I know they love America, and they are deeply worried about the direction this administration and the political left are trying to take our country.”
Many in the tea party question the political calculations Mr. Rubio and his fellow Gang of Eight members are making.
“I will give you the quote I hear most often, ‘He got to Washington D.C. and drank the Potomac Kool-Aid,’ and he is now regarded with disdain in the tea party community. He is regarded in the same light that we now regard Sen. John McCain,” Mr. Crow said.
Mr. McCain has become a lightning rod for the tea party movement, which grew in 2010 as rejection of the Republican Party’s direction in the decade when George W. Bush was president and then the nomination of Mr. McCain to be its presidential nominee in 2008.
Joseph Pascarella, a former organizer of the Niceville-Valparaiso Tea Party group in Florida, said he was disappointed to see Mr. Rubio palling around with what he called RINOs — Republicans in name only — and nestling “under McCain’s wing.”
Mr. McCain “is not really a conservative,” Mr. Pascarella said. “He doesn’t stand for anything. He is Harry Reid on our side. He goes along to get along.”
The backlash has taken a toll on Mr. Rubio, whose favorability rating in polls has dropped. Mr. Rubio, however, said this “certainly isn’t about gaining support for future office.”