Rubio rewrites GOP media playbook

February 21, 2013

Comprehensive immigration reform still looks uncertain on Capitol Hill as the principles laid out by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and the other members of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” slowly evolve into legislative text. But Rubio’s lead role in this has been crucial. Equally important, was the template Rubio provided by engaging with media of all stripes – conservative, mainstream and online – to sell the idea, and his party, to audiences outside the usual Republican comfort zone.

Diagnosing what ails the Republican Party has become a favorite Beltway pastime. But it’s clear that rebuilding the brand among Latino voters tops the “to-do” list. President Barack Obama defeated GOP nominee Mitt Romney by more than 20 points among Latino voters, according to many exit polls. The GOP has a small amount of time until this trend is set in stone.

Enter Rubio, who tackled an historically difficult issue – particularly for the GOP’s conservative wing, with whom he is identified. His immigration principles had to withstand scrutiny on the right and address the White House’s moving goalposts on the left. The first-term senator faced the challenge of dealing with both ends of the political spectrum without losing his balance.

Rubio’s template has been to speak with everyone – from conservative radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin to Spanish-language interviewers on Univision to influential websites like BuzzFeed, where he expounded on everything from Tupac Shakur to his immigration plan.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), another member of the Gang of Eight, described Rubio’s as being “in the lion’s den” when he appeared on conservative talk shows, which continue to rail against “amnesty.”

Rubio wasn’t naive, thinking every audience would be friendly. Yet he still laid out his entire case for proactively solving the immigration quandary. He even earned kudos from Limbaugh for tackling the issue and engaging talk radio in the conversation.

In fact, when Erick Erickson, editor of, a leading conservative website, criticized him, Rubio wrote a response that led to a constructive dialogue instead of a destructive war of words.

Rubio clearly understands the new media landscape. This was evident when he was caught up in the media storm sparked by his reaching for a water bottle during the Republican response to the State of the Union address. Most politicians today would have gone in a bunker, trying to let the story die. Rubio’s decision, however, was to have fun with it – posting a picture of the bottle he drank online, and repeating the gesture in many interviews. He displayed a sense of humor and quick thinking that will serve him well. It should also be a reminder to other lawmakers not to take themselves too seriously.

Rubio’s romancing of the press even extended beyond U.S. borders this week. During his visit to Israel, he sat for interviews with local TV – a risk, since any gaffe would have been quickly pointed out. He also created a tongue-in-cheek photo op – clinking water bottles with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This picture was picked up by many media outlets.

Whether a gridlocked Congress will be able to handle an issue like immigration reform is up for debate. Rubio, for one, has made it clear that he would walk away if there is an attempt to weaken key principles of his proposal, such as strengthening border security before offering a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

Regardless, Republicans have too long accused the media of left-wing bias as an excuse to either not engage with the mainstream news outlets or remain within the friendly confines of conservative outlets. The growth of social media and the evolution of mainstream coverage has handed the GOP a golden opportunity. Republicans can now hear directly from emerging constituencies and convey their ideas to key audiences, with no filter from news producers or editors.

If Republicans continue to willfully ignore this new media landscape, they will only further relegate the party to spectator status on the major policy issues of the day.

Republicans have looked to Rubio to provide leadership. He has done this on two fronts: solving the GOP’s growing disconnect with Latinos and other minority voters; and providing an effective template for how to tell the story to voters without sacrificing his principles.

A Grand Old Party hoping to stay relevant would do well to follow his lead.


PHOTO (Top):Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) addresses the American Conservative Union’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, February 9, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

PHOTO (Insert):Senate candidate Marco Rubio speaks to reporters after voting in Florida’s primary election in Miami August 24, 2010. REUTERS/Joe Skkipper

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