Rubio is a charismatic Latino from a swing state in a party with only two other Latinos who are governors or senators, aside from Cruz. The key question for him over the next four years is not how does he position himself to either run for president or be nominated for vice-president, but does he make any mistakes that stop an almost inevitable ascension? Outside of legislative battles on the economy, where Rep. Paul Ryan has huge influence with party elites and members, Rubio is already the defining figure in the GOP, a person who almost certainly will have staying power.
Rubio seems to know this, and so do other Republican elites. His leadership on pushing Republicans to accept immigration reform shows a politician confident of his conservative bona fides and looking for a way to make sure the GOP ticket in 2016 (one he could be on) can actually win. And when Rubio appeared recently on the show of Rush Limbaugh to tout his ideas, Limbaugh, one of the most ardent opponents in the country of creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, seemed determined not to blast the potential savior of his party. Even as Rubio listed ideas Limbaugh is skeptical of, the host told the senator “what you are doing is admirable and noteworthy.”
Of course inevitable candidacies don’t always work out. But if it’s not Rubio, it will be one of about a dozen others. There are two Latino Republican governors, Nevada’s Brian Sandoval and New Mexico’s Susana Martinez. And even without a Latino politician on the ticket, party leaders are very likely to want to pick a figure that includes some nod to diversity.
Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, two nationally-known Republican figures, both have signaled little interest in entering electoral politics, but could emerge if they wanted, as could perhaps a very credentialed GOP military figure or business woman, like former eBAY chief executive Meg Whitman. At the same time, even among the 12 in the Senate or governor’s offices, it’s hard to imagine Republicans backing political moderates like Maine’s Susan Collins or Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.
But the group is not tiny. The challenge of 2008, when Republicans tried to match the historical nature of Obama’s candidacy and instead ended up with a candidate (Sarah Palin) viewed as unqualified for national office, is no longer an issue. The Republicans have a bench of people with both traditional qualifications and diversity. Palin had only served as governor of a tiny state for less than two years before she was nominated as vice-president. If they win reelection next year, Sandoval, Martinez and Haley of South Carolina would have already served five years as governors before 2016.
What this means is that the moves of Jindal and Rubio in particular should be viewed as a proxy for where they think the Republican Party is now and must shift to by 2016. Both have emphasized the party talking about things beyond fiscal issues, a jab at Paul Ryan’s obsession with the budget and spending. Both men have said the GOP should not abandon its opposition to abortion and gay marriage, a sign they think the party can win at least one more presidential election without strong shifts on social issues. Jindal has said he won’t implement parts of “Obamacare” in his state, an acknowledgement that the legislation is still strongly opposed in GOP primary circles.
What does the rise of Republican minorities mean for the Democrats? In some ways, very little. The Democrats increasingly rely on blacks, Hispanics and women to win on Election Day. The party’s days of an all-white male ticket are already over, and there is already pressure by party activists to make sure the next Democratic ticket includes a woman, even if Clinton does not run. Democrats policies already line up with these groups on most issues.
But the kind of identity politics Democrats have practiced in the past may be coming to an end. In 2012, as debates about contraceptives and abortion happened both nationally and in key states, Democratic activists would frequently note that the voices of Republicans were all male. On immigration, with Rubio in the lead for the GOP, Democrats can’t say the Republicans aren’t listening to any Latinos.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @PerryBaconJr.