By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
With Marco Rubio overtaking Jeb Bush in polls for the Republican presidential nomination, national Democratic political organizations have turned up their attacks on the U.S. senator, accusing him of breaking Senate ethics rules and federal election laws by soliciting campaign donations from his Senate office and using Senate staff to work on his campaign.
In the coming weeks, these groups will continue highlighting more of Rubio’s vulnerabilities, from his alleged misuse of a Republican Party credit card to his close friendships with disgraced politicians like ex-congressman David Rivera and former State Rep. Ralph Arza, according to Democratic and Republican operatives in Rubio’s home county of Miami-Dade.
“Marco seems to be the guy on the upswing right now,” said Ben Pollara, a Miami Beach-based Democratic political consultant. “It is only natural that they are turning their fire on him. A true deep dive into his record in Florida is bound to happen.”
Miami-Dade Republican Party Chairman Nelson Diaz concurred. “I’ve noticed Democrats are trash-talking Marco more,” he said. “It might hurt him a little. At the end of the day, people understand candidates are not 100 percent perfect.”
Over the past two months, Rubio has ascended in national polls, as well as surveys in early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida. While Rubio still trails billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, he’s topping Bush, who has tumbled into the single digits after starting his campaign as the presumed front-runner.
A Quinnipiac national poll released Nov. 4 has Rubio garnering 14 percent of Republican voters, trailing Carson and Trump, who virtually tied for first. Bush, on the other hand, had his worst showing yet with 4 percent, placing him fifth behind U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
The momentum shift has led to groups like the American Bridge 21st Century political action committee and the American Democracy Legal Fund to escalate their strikes against Rubio.
American Bridge is a super PAC that conducts opposition research for the Democratic Party. Rodell Mollineau, a former staffer of Sen. Harry Reid, is American Bridge’s treasurer and George Soros, the billionaire hedge fund manager and Democrat rainmaker, is one of the PAC’s largest benefactors. Soros contributed $1 million to American Bridge in May, according to filings with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).
Since Oct. 23, American Bridge has produced three YouTube videos assailing Rubio, but none on the other Republican contenders. Prior to that, American Bridge primarily focused on Bush, having made 41 online clips since the former Florida governor entered the race in June. In contrast, the PAC has produced 10 total videos about Rubio since his presidential announcement in April.
TAKING AIM AT RUBIO
In the most recent American Bridge video about the senator, uploaded on Oct. 29, the PAC takes aim at Rubio’s abysmal Senate attendance record with screenshots of a Sun-Sentinel editorial calling for him to resign. In addition, Rubio is featured in the headlines of 15 of 22 blog posts on American Bridge’s website between Oct. 23 and Nov. 4. Spokespersons for American Bridge and Rubio’s presidential campaign did not respond to multiple email requests for comment.
While American Bridge is hammering Rubio with videos and blogs, the American Democracy Legal Fund — a group helmed by former Democratic National Committee communications director Brad Woodhouse — wants the FEC to investigate Rubio for allegedly breaking Senate ethics rules and campaign finance laws.
According to an Oct. 28 complaint signed by Woodhouse, Rubio solicited campaign contributions during an on-air interview with Fox News when he was inside the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. The complaint alleges Rubio said, “obviously if somebody watching this program wants to help us, they should go to marcorubio.com and chip in.”
Woodhouse claimed “Rubio’s campaign donation pitch was a flagrant violation of federal law and Senate rules.” His complaint also accuses Rubio’s Senate staff of providing policy proposals and ideas to his campaign that were crafted during work hours using Senate resources and facilities.
This is not the first time Rubio has run afoul of campaign finance laws. In September, after receiving a warning from the FEC, the Rubio campaign notified federal regulators that it had refunded more than $120,000 to contributors who donated more than the $2,700 maximum allowed by law. Ernest Semersky, an Illinois Porsche dealership owner, received the largest refund: $10,000.
A month later, on Oct. 27, a super PAC called Values are Vital voided a $5,000 check it gave the Rubio campaign after the committee was unable to get a refund. In July, the FEC had warned Values are Vital that its excessive contribution was not allowed by law. According to an Aug. 21 letter to the FEC, the committee’s lawyer James C. Thomas III requested more time to address the problem because the Rubio campaign failed to respond to his email inquiry and a certified letter asking for the refund.
Prior to his April presidential campaign unveiling, Rubio’s campaign had been warned by the FEC after each of its four quarterly filings in 2014 that it had accepted excessive contributions. Two days before Rubio announced his candidacy, the campaign refunded more than $23,000 in excessive contributions and another $27,000 was either reclassified for use in the 2016 general election, or applied to the spouses of donors who gave more than the maximum allowed by federal law. In 2012, Rubio’s campaign and its treasurer paid an $8,000 civil penalty to settle an FEC inquiry into $210,173 in excessive donations accepted in 2010, the year he won his Senate seat.
Pollara said Rubio can expect even more intense scrutiny of his campaign’s financial missteps, his record as a state legislator, and his friendships with Rivera and Arza. Although he hasn’t been criminally charged, Rivera’s ex-girlfriend Ana Alliegro has implicated the former congressman as the mastermind behind a ringer candidate that ran against his nemesis and Democrat Joe Garcia in the 2012 primary. Alliegro made the accusation under oath during a federal court hearing in February. A month later, an administrative judge in Tallahassee ruled Rivera had to pay nearly $58,000 in fines for ethics violations that occurred when he was a state legislator.
In 2006, Arza was forced to resign from the State House after he was charged with two felonies, including for retaliating against and tampering with a witness. Arza had left a threatening voicemail on the phone of then-State Rep. Gus Barreiro over a dispute involving then-Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Rudy Crew, whom Arza referred to with a racial slur. Arza pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of tampering with a witness and was sentenced to probation, community service, an anger management program, and alcohol abuse counseling.
“The more he gets examined, the worse it will get for Marco,” Pollara said. “It’s like cockroaches. When you see one scurrying around, there are thousands more behind the walls.”
Diaz countered that voters are not going to hold Rubio accountable for the alleged misdeeds of his friends. “People elected Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama knowing all their flaws,” he said. “Voters will accept a flawed candidate.”