Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., isn't up for re-election until 2016, but he's playing an early, earnest role in the 2014 midterm campaigns, backing his candidate endorsements with the full fiscal heft of his political action committee.
That endorsement has come with significant, tangible perks, including roughly $200,000 in television and web ads supporting Cotton, and more than $15,000 in earmarked donations to Cotton. On Monday, Rubio hosted his first fundraising event for Cotton, a breakfast in Miami.
Rubio and his team insist his leadership PAC, Reclaim America, is most concerned with getting conservative candidates elected to the Senate, not with winning favor for any future campaign — like the 2016 presidential bid he's thought to be weighing.
The Arkansas race, said Reclaim America Director Terry Sullivan, is “not necessarily a race that’s winning a lot of friends if [Rubio] wants to run for higher office.”
But Rubio's committee is operating differently than any other senator's leadership PAC. Some lawmakers, like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, focus on making campaign donations straight to Senate colleagues. Others, like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., give money to the Republican Party in early-primary states. But Rubio's PAC has spent more money earlier, will run its own ads and is earmarking campaign contributions to GOP candidates in competitive races.
That model is closer to one of a outside group, such as the Senate Conservatives fund, than a traditional leadership PAC.
Rubio plans to endorse four or five Republicans Senate candidates during this election cycle and is committed to providing them with the same fundraising and campaign assistance he's given Cotton.
Despite Rubio's history as an insurgent Republican primary candidate who beat former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010, the Tea Party-aligned lawmaker does not plan to make endorsements in any GOP primaries.
His committee's activity in 2013 gives a peek at what to expect in the coming year.
Rubio endorsed Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor's race this year and hit the campaign trail with Cuccinelli to tout his support.
And Rubio raised eyebrows when his PAC made a six-figure buy of television airtime in New Hampshire, an early presidential primary state, to defend Sen. Kelly Ayotte against attacks from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun-violence group.
“She’s a friend and she needed some support in the face of some pretty tough attacks,” one Rubio aide explained, dismissing the suggestion that Rubio spent the money with 2016 in mind.
“Some of us made an argument that we shouldn’t get involved because it was New Hampshire, but [Rubio] didn’t care,” Sullivan said.
At this same point in the 2010 elections, Mitt Romney was also contributing money to candidates in states with early presidential primaries, two years ahead of Romney's run for president. He supported Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate special election and made nominal donations to candidates in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Idaho.
But Rubio’s team dismisses the notion that his leadership PAC is operating comparably, or with a similar endgame.
“If this is an attempt to curry favor” for 2016, Sullivan said, pointing to Rubio's focus on a few key Senate races, “it’s a really bad attempt.”