The Tea Party's Plan to Succeed Marco Rubio

Conservative groups helped put Rep. Ron DeSantis in a Florida congressional seat. Now, his campaign is pitching to establishment groups ahead of the GOP Senate primary.

Rep. Ron DeSantis, at podium, speaks at a press conference in 2013. (Alex Wong AFP/Getty)

Ron DeSantis's conservative backers believe his Senate campaign can break the mold of past tea-party candidates. Even better for them, he could help build momentum for the movement's "2.0" phase electing allies to higher office.

DeSantis has backing from the same conservative outside groups that have often warred with the "establishment" in recent Republican primaries. But the two-term Florida congressman's impressive resume — Yale, Harvard Law, U.S. Navy — is part of a bigger pitch looking beyond the primary to replace presidential contender Marco Rubio in the Senate.

Florida may well end up being the most expensive Senate race in the country. So why not consolidate GOP resources, they argue, behind a candidate who can satisfy different sides of the Republican spectrum?

Tony Fabrizio, a veteran Republican pollster advising DeSantis's campaign, illustrates DeSantis's efforts to appeal beyond the tea-party side of the GOP primary electorate. Fabrizio's other clients include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has clashed with Senate Conservatives Fund and other DeSantis endorsers across the country. SCF, the Club for Growth (which endorsed DeSantis's first House run), the Madison Project, and other conservative groups have lined up with DeSantis, but Fabrizio says the campaign intends to build a broader coalition of supporters.

"I think people try to paint people into a box, and because Senate Conservative Fund and Club for Growth support Ron DeSantis, people have this, you know, fire-breathing-guy" image of him, Fabrizio said. "But the truth of the matter is he is a Reagan conservative. He is truly a limited-government, lower-taxes, control-spending, strong-on-foreign-policy conservative that would appeal to a wide berth of the party."

When DeSantis declared his Senate ambitions in April, his core campaign team came from Jamestown Associates, a consulting firm that drew ire from fellow Republicans in 2014 for working against now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in his primary, among other incumbents. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and other establishment players said they would blackball Jamestown.

But Fabrizio has joined that team to work with DeSantis, and together they are working strategically to challenge the idea that often-opposed ideological groups — like different consulting firms — can't work together after all. Sens. Tom Cotton and Dan Sullivan combined backing from all across the GOP in their 2014 campaigns. Now, with DeSantis, the conservative movement is pitching one of its candidates for establishment support.

"Some of the groups that have supported Congressman DeSantis were at odds with the Chamber in the past, but I can tell you that the Chamber likes Congressman DeSantis," Fabrizio told National Journal. "They didn't tell me to go to work for him; I made that decision myself. But it certainly does show that the groups can all come together for a common goal of electing a strong pro-business conservative."

The Chamber's senior political strategist, Scott Reed, confirmed to National Journal back in May that the group had a positive meeting with DeSantis. While the Chamber hasn't backed DeSantis in his safe-seat House races, it does have history with one of his primary opponents: Rep. David Jolly, who had the Chamber's help in his expensive 2014 special election. Jolly's supporters have also touted his Chamber ties.

Other obstacles lie in DeSantis's path too, in addition to his opponents. He is a more polished politician than some past, flameout Senate candidates, but multiple GOP strategists said DeSantis's conservative House voting record could become a toxic asset in a Florida general election. Specifically, DeSantis supported the 2013 government shutdown over Obamacare funding and the Republican Study Committee's conservative budget proposals — which liberals dubbed "the Ryan budget on steroids." (Meanwhile, Jolly was one of the few House Republicans who voted against the Ryan budget.) Among the proposals: raising the Social Security retirement age.

This particular budget goes much further than the official House Republican proposal in its changes to Medicare and Social Security, and some in the GOP fear that Democrats could use it to draw Florida's large senior population back toward them after years of Republican progress. That bloc is one of the most important in Florida politics.

"Voting for Social Security cuts in Florida is like starting the campaign from the 1-yard line," Florida Republican strategist Mike Hanna said earlier this year.

Fabrizio contends that Florida voters have been desensitized to entitlement threats in recent elections, pointing to the party's recent successes, particularly the 2014 governor's race, when Democrats flooded the airwaves with ads on the subject. (Fabrizio had a front-row seat as one of Gov. Rick Scott's advisers.) In a Republican primary, Fabrizio said, it's "wholly possible" for as many as 40 percent of voters to be over the age of 65. But he argued that opposing entitlement changes equates to being a "big spender."

In other words, Fabrizio is saying that proposing changes to entitlement programs — the fabled "third rail" of American politics — is now less dangerous to GOP candidates than not grappling with the federal debt and budget deficits.

"No voters believe, particularly Republican voters, that Republicans want to do away with Medicare or anything like that," said Fabrizio. "I think the question becomes in the general who you wind up with as your opponent and what are the other differences between you and your opponent."

That issue may be a key factor in how both the primary and general election play out. For the moment, DeSantis's conservative record has yielded early advantages, including $2 million banked partly with the help of outside groups and some of Scott's major donors. That will come in handy in a big state where no candidate is particularly well-known and statewide advertising will cost at least $1 million per week, Fabrizio said. He predicted candidates and supportive super PACs will need to combine to spend $10 million in the primary and then $20 million in the general election. DeSantis is "raising as much money as we can, doing as much earned media as we can, reaching out to the establishment where the congressman doesn't already have roots," Fabrizio said.

Later, DeSantis's voting record may come into play. But if he manages to win wide enough GOP backing before then, it wouldn't matter in Florida's Republican primary.