Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (R) leaves after a press conference October 30, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/getty

Whatever happened to Marco Rubio?

Updated

Chris Christie’s victory galvanized the GOP’s establishment wing on Tuesday as they try to regain control of their party ahead of national elections. The centrist Republican’s glide to re-election in blue New Jersey comes a month after Ted Cruz rallied the Tea Party to shut down the government and promised a bloody revolt against weak-willed RINOs. 

And then there’s Marco Rubio. Remember him? 

At this point last year, Rubio was the closest thing to a consensus frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. He was the Tea Party’s original darling, the one who energized conservatives against Charlie Crist, another sitting governor who tried to push them to the center. But Rubio was also one of the few Tea Party stars who could speak to the right’s concerns without completely alienating voters outside of their orbit. His son-of-immigrants-made-good story was supposed to help address the party’s glaring problems with Latino and Asian voters. 

It hasn’t worked out as planned. Christie’s resounding victory – and accompanying 2016 speculation – caps off a difficult 12 months in which the Florida senator has struggled to win over the party’s right and left flanks alike. 

“Right now he’s a guy without a country as far as a base within the party,” Republican strategist John Weaver told msnbc. 

Rubio’s decision to back immigration reform this year was intended to bolster his standing with the establishment wing by giving him a substantial legislative victory favored by big business as well as a powerful general election argument to carry to Latino voters. The adulation Christie is getting today as the “Conservative Leader Who Gets Things Done” was meant to be Rubio’s after President Obama signed his immigration bill into law. 

But while Rubio succeeded in shepherding reform past the Senate, it’s become bogged down in the House. Wary of losing his credibility with the Tea Party, he’s largely refrained from spending significant political capital on pressuring conservatives into voting for reform over the last few months. And last week, he stunned immigration activists when he told the House they shouldn’t even bother passing his own bill favor of more modest individual measures. While Rubio defended the move as a bow to political reality, the shift opens him up to the same flip flopper charges that hampered Mitt Romney in 2012. It’s easy to imagine rivals pouncing on his confusing position from both sides come debate time.

“If his advisers think by backing off, he’ll gain traction among Tea Party members or those in our party who are most adamantly opposed to reform, they’re sadly mistaken,” Weaver said. 

At the same time, Christie’s sustained success is drawing huge buzz among the party’s donor class, who are desperate to retake the White House and concerned Hillary Clinton would destroy his more conservative rivals. His willingness to openly rebut the Tea Party’s purist approach to governance plays well with more centrist business-oriented Republicans who fear they’re dragging the party down. That his win comes the same day social conservative firebrand Ken Cuccinelli lost in Virginia to a weak Democratic candidate is just the icing on the cake. 

If the establishment rallies around Christie as their favored candidate in 2016, Rubio will start with a major handicap in funding and endorsements.

“At this juncture he’s gone from ‘establishment frontrunner’ to ‘preferred Vice Presidential candidate’ for just about everyone,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell told msnbc. “To the establishment money guys, when Christie says “Hey, I just won arctic blue New Jersey by 20 or 30 points,’ that’s tough to overcome. The fundraisers want to win and they will do what it takes to win.”

Rubio doesn’t necessarily need to be the “establishment” guy to win. He could go the grassroots insurgent route istead – after all, until 2013, he was widely considered the Tea Party’s leading man. But his work on immigration reform, which is a popular cause with every demographic except the hard right, has taken a toll. He’s also proven reluctant to fully throw his lot in with the Tea Party for fear of compromising his national appeal. He called on Congress to defund Obamacare for months, then stayed relatively silent during the actual shutdown fight while other leaders absorbed the heat.

Ted Cruz, by contrast, eagerly took a leadership role during the budget standoff and is rapidly cornering the market on Tea Party candidates for 2016. Rubio can make a compelling case to conservatives that Cruz’s extreme unpopularity outside the base will drag the party down in the general election. But this is a fight over the same bloc of primary voters that jumped – in order – from Donald Trump to Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum in 2012. They don’t care much about the general election.  

That leaves Rubio stuck in the awkward middle. Not quite electable enough to wow the establishment, not quite fiery enough to impress the Tea Party.

More importantly, there’s no distinct governing philosophy underlying his current incarnation, which seems to lurch between the two sides. Cruz’s argument is that only a merciless, unrelenting attack on liberalism in all forms will lead to victory. Christie’s argument is that you win by bringing conservative principles into negotiations, then find policies that work for both sides. What’s Rubio’s?

The bright side for Rubio is that he has plenty of time to recover.

After the midterms, he’ll have a new book out he can use to fine tune his particular brand of conservatism. And you never know what might happen to his rivals: Christie could struggle in his second term or Cruz could self-immolate.

Just look at Rand Paul, who inflated his stock with debates over civil liberties and drone strikes only to crash back to earth with blow-ups over a neo-Confederate aide and serial plagiarism. Or Jeb Bush, another dangerous rival who could crowd out Rubio’s fundraising base. The former governor debuted a book on immigration policy last year only to face a backlash for abandoning his past support for a path to citizenship. 

Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a close friend to Rubio, told reporters that the Florida Senator is still able to “garner significant support” despite hiccups over his immigration strategy.

“It seems every time we have a major event take place, the leader of that major event rushes to the front,” he said. “We’ve had that with Marco Rubio, we’ve had that with Rand Paul, we’ve had that with Ted Cruz. But these are temporary spikes, we’ll have to see over a longer time what will have some staying power.”

Whatever happened to Marco Rubio?

Updated