(Bloomberg View) -- "It all comes down to Florida," Marco Rubio would often say as he campaigned before the state's March 15 presidential primary, which he lost to Donald Trump. Now, the fundraising e-mails for his close bid for re-election to the Senate make the same claim. Yet it didn't come down to Florida then and it probably won't now. This time, Rubio's race is important for a different reason: After the election, Republicans will need to figure out what kind of party they are, and he will be a key figure in that quest.
I had a front row seat to the Florida primary in March. The final days of Rubio's campaign were painful to watch: Even in Hialeah, the mostly Cuban Miami suburb where Rubio once won his first election campaign by going door to door, few people turned out to listen to him. Trump had star appeal, and he easily won the state. A handful of supporters wept as they listened to Rubio's concession speech: "While we are on the right side, this year, we will not be on the winning side."
It didn't really matter that Rubio lost Florida. Ted Cruz and Jon Kasich won their home states, but Trump still ended up beating them. But Rubio's loss was so hopeless and he seemed to take it so hard and so personally that it was hard to imagine he would rebound so quickly. Such comebacks after a devastating loss aren't uncommon -- but they are rarely as lightning-fast as Rubio's has been.
Even though Rubio made no secret of being bored with legislative work in the presidential race, he's now fighting a spirited battle for his Senate seat against Patrick Murphy, a Democratic U.S. representative, and polls favor him to win it again.
His fundraising e-mails have mostly been written in an alarmist, plaintive tone: "If we lose Florida, I fear we will lose the Senate," and "My opponent is currently flooding the Florida airwaves with vicious lies and attacks against me." In fact, Murphy has been doing nothing of the kind: According to Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, in the last two months, Rubio's campaign and associated PACS have outspent Murphy and pro-Murphy PACs by a factor of 2-to-1, plowing about $10 million into ads that have aired more than 17,000 times, compared with 6,400 for Murphy's.
"The Democratic Party had money scheduled for Murphy," says Dan Gelber, a Miami lawyer who served as Democratic minority leader in the Florida House of Representatives. But, he added, Florida has expensive media markets, "so it was either take a stand against Marco or go to two or three other places." The Democrats decided in favor of the latter.
Republicans, however, are invested in helping Rubio win. Some of those fundraising e-mails were signed by his primary rivals -- Cruz, Kasich and Ben Carson. That support is, in part, strategic -- Republicans would like to keep the Senate seat to hold on to their majority -- but there's more to it than that; It's no accident that Trump has not signed any of the e-mails or campaigned for Rubio, who endorsed him and cast an early vote for him.
Mike Fasano, a veteran Republican politician from Pasco County, didn't vote for any of the presidential candidates this year, but in the Senate race, he voted for Rubio, whom he doesn't particularly like, even though he helped him early in his career (as majority leader of the state House of Representatives, he promoted the young politician to be a majority whip). "He always showed up late for the bus and took credit," Fasano says. "And when he went to Washington, he forgot who had sent him there -- that's why he lost the primary."
Many of Rubio's erstwhile friends describe him as somewhat self-serving. Fasano said keeping Republican control of the Senate was important, but it was even more important for the party to regroup after the "Trump revolution," assuming Trump loses the election.
"Donald Trump, of course, will never fade away," he said. "But his phenomenon will probably ease, slow down. The party will have a chance to be more compassionate, to do more for the people who followed Trump because they were angry. You can be pro-life, pro-gun, pro-business, but how about pro-little guy?"
Rubio tried being all of those things during the primaries. Gelber remarks that, despite his Tea Party views, his narrative -- that of a son of poor immigrants -- could easily be a Democrat's. It didn't work because angry voters judged Trump as more sincere, but "Marco is learning his lesson," Fasano said. "It cannot be Washington business as usual after this election. He has no choice."
Gelber doesn't believe Republicans will be able to move toward more compassion and inclusiveness even if Trump loses: He believes the nativists the nominee has empowered won't go away, and they will always be more active at the primary stage than more moderate voters. "This isn't a problem that can be solved with a loss," he says.
Yet Gelber, who worked with Rubio in the state legislature and was friendly with him, says the senator has enough talent to pull off a balancing act between the different, seemingly implacable Republican factions. "If he weren't in public service, he could be the star in a telenovela," Gelber says. "He's also consistent on issues, a disciplined campaigner, and he has no Trump-like baggage." Gelber believes Rubio is still one of the Republicans' best choices for president in the next election cycle.
Despite Murphy's efforts to tie his rival to Trump, the senator is performing better in the polls against him than Trump is against Hillary Clinton in Florida. In a way, Rubio is taking his revenge for the primary defeat. If Trump loses and Rubio wins, the senator will be one of the major forces behind an attempt to make the party more inclusive, fighting the Democrats for the growing non-white vote and detaching from any reliance on the most extreme nativist voters -- a less promising electorate. In Miami, where Spanish is the default language and, as Gelber says, some neighborhoods talk more about the Haitian election than the U.S. one, that's the obvious road to take.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.