Can Marco Rubio win back the middle class for Republicans? And does he need to?

December 5, 2012

Sen. Marco Rubio offered a clear break from the prevailing caricature of Republicans as a party for and of the wealthy in a speech Tuesday night in Washington.

In so doing, the Florida senator sought to begin a healing of his party's relationship with the middle class -- and perhaps more importantly, those aspiring to be in the middle class -- in advance of a potential 2016 presidential bid.


"Every country has rich people," Rubio said in a speech at the Kemp Foundation awards dinner. "But only a few places have achieved a vibrant and stable middle class. And in the history of the world, none has been more vibrant and more stable than the American middle class."

That rhetoric stands in stark contrast to the image that was painted of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign -- one of an out-of-touch plutocrat concerned only with protecting his wealthy friends.

The Obama campaign's success in casting Romney in that light, coupled with the Republican's own mistakes -- 47 percent, anyone? -- played a critical role in his defeat.

Exit polling tells the story. More than half of all voters (53 percent) said Romney's policies would favor the wealthy while just 34 percent said they would favor the middle class; just 10 percent said Obama's policies would favor the wealthy while 44 percent said they would favor the middle class.

Of the 21 percent of voters who said having a candidate who "cares about people like me" was the most important trait in deciding their vote, Obama won more than eight in 10.

What's interesting is that while Romney quite clearly had an empathy problem when it came to the middle class, it's far less clear that he actually had a problem with middle-class voters. Among voters earning between $50,000 and $100,000 (the range typically used to define the middle class), Romney won 52 percent as compared to 46 percent for Obama.

That piece of data suggests that Rubio -- with his rhetoric aimed squarely at the middle class -- may be up to something more subtle and more important for the party.

Understood in that context, Rubio's appeal is not only aimed at those in the middle class, but those aspiring to be in the middle class.

"One of the fundamental promises of America is the opportunity to make it to the middle class," Rubio said in the speech on Tuesday. "But today there is a growing opportunity gap developing." And, in re-telling the story of his parents -- who immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba -- Rubio referenced how they were able to "make it into the middle class."

Speaking to those who aspire to the middle class but aren't there yet has more political potential if Rubio can succeed. Obama took 60 percent in November among those earning under $50,000. And that economic category made up 41 percent of all voters -- far larger than those earning between $50,000-$100,000 (31 percent) and those making more than $100,000 (28 percent).

(It's also worth noting that Rubio's appeal to the middle class and those who aspire to be in the middle class could also resonate strongly in the Hispanic community, where Republicans badly need a foothold heading into 2016 and where the Cuban-American senator obviously has a personal connection.)

Rubio's pitch then might look like a play for the middle class, but it's much more than that. Rubio is looking to win over those who dream of making it to the middle class -- a larger bloc of voters Republicans have been losing and losing badly.

It's an intriguing approach -- particularly if Rubio can make it work if/when he runs in 2016.

Jesmer joins FP1: Rob Jesmer, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, will leave his post to become a partner at the GOP consulting firm FP1. Prior to serving as the NRSC's top operative in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, Jesmer ran Texas Sen. John Cornyn's 2008 re-election race and worked for Sen. John McCain's presidential bid. He has also served as chief of staff to Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers and done a stint at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"Rob is one of the best operatives in the Republican Party,” said Terry Nelson of the firm's newest hire. Jesmer joins Nelson, Danny Diaz and Jon Down as a partner in the firm.

Ga. poll shows Chambliss vulnerable, Cain hugely popular: A new poll from the Democratic automated pollster Public Policy Polling shows Herman Cain is hugely popular in his home state of Georgia, with 68 percent of voters viewing him favorably, compared to just 20 percent unfavorably.

He even leads Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) by double digits in a prospective 2014 primary, though Cain has said he won't run.

For what it's worth, the poll shows Chambliss is vulnerable to a less-popular opponent. Thirty-eight percent of GOP primary voters say they want Chambliss as their nominee, while 43 percent want someone more conservative. (More on that here.)

Still, Chambliss leads Reps. Tom Price and Paul Broun and former secretary of state Karen Handel all by at least 28 points and is over 50 percent in each primary matchup.

Fixbits:

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) is still at an undisclosed location, and even the state's U.S. senators don't know where she is.

Several top staff members are leaving FreedomWorks along with Dick Armey.

As expected, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin will take over heading the Democratic Governors Association.

Top Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau may soon leave the administration.

Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R) is eyeing the special election for resigning Rep. Jo Ann Emerson's (R-Mo.) seat. Kinder passed on a gubernatorial bid this year after a series of unhelpful revelations.

Top NRCC aide Brock McCleary is heading back to Pennsylvania.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) will take over for retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) as chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

Must-reads:

"Republicans stripped of committee slots lash out at GOP leaders" -- Michael O'Brien, NBC News

"Aides: Obama ‘Genuinely Conflicted’ Between Rice and Kerry" -- Michael Hirsh, National Journal

"One month later, Republicans find plenty of blame for election loss" -- Mark Murray, NBC News

"Kerry balances refocused devotion to Senate, talk of Cabinet nomination" -- Paul Kane, Washington Post

"In Tax Fight, G.O.P. Seeks a Position to Fall Back On" -- Jonathan Weisman, New York Times

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Sean Sullivan | December 4, 2012