- - Monday, April 13, 2015

Coming right on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s entrance into the race, Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign announcement hasn’t generated quite the fanfare that fellow Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul did.

Nevertheless, Mr. Rubio’s could be the determining candidacy in the race. For it will tell us once and for all if the GOP establishment has finally decided it actually wants to beat Democrats more than conservatives for a change.

Two years ago, Mr. Rubio was the Republican Party’s next great hope. Articulate, intelligent, young, conservative and Hispanic – he was poised to become one of the early favorites for 2016. Then Mr. Rubio committed a colossal blunder in the eyes of many in the grass-roots, when he volunteered to be the conservative mascot for the dreaded and derided “Gang of Eight” amnesty scam.

The pro-amnesty GOP establishment loved him for it, but Mr. Rubio paid a dear price politically, losing considerable cache with the very conservatives who carried him to victory in the 2010 Florida U.S. Senate primary over establishment proxy Charlie Crist. Mr. Rubio’s fall from conservative grace opened a door that another conservative Hispanic was ready to fill.

Enter Mr. Cruz, who probably doesn’t even consider running for president at all without Mr. Rubio’s risky gambit blowing up in his face.

The past two years, Mr. Rubio has tried to make amends with conservatives. According to Conservative Review, which tracks how elected officials perform on full-spectrum conservative issues, Mr. Rubio is tied for the 7th best “Liberty Score” among those who have served at least two years in the U.S. Senate.

Yet Mr. Rubio’s name remains an afterthought among many conservative activists in early states like Iowa, where I live. That led many to believe he’s not a serious threat to win the nomination next year. However, Mr. Rubio has a chance to be the Joni Ernst of the 2016 primary cycle. And that’s an analogy that should be familiar to Mr. Rubio since he and his team were key supporters of Ms. Ernst’s successful U.S. Senate bid last year.

In fact, next February’s first in the nation Iowa Caucuses could be a replay of the state’s 2014 U.S. Senate primary if the GOP establishment has learned from its history of past presidential failures.

Just as there are factions within the conservative grass-roots (libertarians, evangelicals, Tea Party, etc.), there are factions within the GOP establishment as well. There’s the “just win baby” establishment, who really doesn’t care what you believe if they think you can win. Then there’s the establishment that would rather have Democrats win than a true movement conservative.

You know who these people are, because they and their candidates go harder after conservatives in primaries than they ever go after Democrats in the general. They also will often be the anonymous GOP sources tearing down conservatives in the liberal media as well.

In the 2014 Iowa U.S. Senate primary, the GOP establishment was split between Ms. Ernst and businessman Mark Jacobs, who was brought into the race once Ms. Ernst struggled to gain traction early on. While Ms. Ernst was liked by some in the establishment, she also had a very conservative voting record in the Iowa State Senate. On the other hand, Mr. Jacobs openly ran as a progressive, corporatist Republican.

Just as Jeb Bush is doing now.

The conservative grass-roots candidate was a talk-show host and college professor named Sam Clovis. Right on cue, the establishment believed Mr. Clovis was too conservative to win a statewide race – just as they’re now saying Mr. Cruz is too conservative to win a national campaign. It should be noted, though, that Mr. Cruz has already raised frontrunner-type money while Mr. Clovis struggled to raise any money at all.

Ms. Ernst desperately needed something to shake up the race. Otherwise, she risked being passed over for Mr. Jacobs. That’s when Mr. Rubio consultant Todd Harris contrived the now-legendary “Squeal” ad for Ms. Ernst, when she compared the castrating of pigs on her Iowa farm to castrating the ruling class in Washington, D.C. The ad perfectly touched on the zeitgeist of the 2014 cycle, became arguably the most effective ad of the year and catapulted Ms. Ernst into the stratosphere.

Suddenly she had broader appeal, including enough conservatives who could now see her as a fighter, and Mr. Jacobs became the candidate “trying to lose the primary to win the general election” (as Jeb Bush recently put it). While Mr. Jacobs’ people were saying Mr. Clovis was too conservative to win, Ms. Ernst’s campaign was successful because it recognized you can’t run a candidate your base hates and win, either.

Ms. Ernst proved that Mr. Jacobs and the GOP establishment were offering a false choice between heeding the base and winning. In reality, it’s a poor strategy to try to win by constantly betraying the very people most likely to vote for you.

Just ask Presidents Dole, McCain and Romney.

Mr. Rubio is unlikely to be the conservative grass-roots candidate in the 2016 presidential primary, but if the GOP establishment was wise it would make Mr. Rubio its candidate instead of Jeb. Not only is Jeb the embodiment of every reason Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney lost, but his last name is also “Bush.” That’s why he’s never going to beat Hillary next year if he’s the nominee, and pretty much everybody other than the Quisling faction of the GOP establishment knows it.

On the other hand, Mr. Rubio is more likable, connects better with voters, is actually a conservative but doesn’t come across as threatening, and has the far more inspiring biography. While Mr. Rubio may not be the base’s first choice in the primary, he’d have no problems rallying the base if he were the nominee.

Mr. Rubio is a superior candidate to Jeb in every way. If the establishment were to ditch Jeb and anoint him instead, an Ernst-like coalition could be created and he would instantly become a major player. However, that would require the establishment demonstrating humility, being willing to appeal to conservatives to win instead of taking them for granted, and therefore admitting that its past stubbornness is one of the main reasons America was subjected to a Marxist named Obama in the White House for eight years.

Mr. Rubio’s candidacy grants the GOP establishment one last chance to prove it’s not the treacherous lot most conservatives have come to loathe and distrust. If the establishment sticks with Jeb it will ironically make it even more likely the base will revolt and coalesce behind someone the establishment detests – like Mr. Cruz.

(Steve Deace is a nationally syndicated talk show host and also the author of the new book “Rules for Patriots: How Conservatives Can Win Again.” You can “like” him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @SteveDeaceShow.)

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