Florida Senator Marco Rubio would be a strong conservative choice for the Republican nomination for President.

In this post I will present you with the facts about his strengths and his conservative record. And yes, I’ll also address the two big criticisms, experience and immigration, and lay out why they are strengths for him.

Rubio’s a naturally gifted speaker with a quick mind, unlikely to make a fool of himself on the debate stage. A 44 year old Cuban-American with a beautiful young family and a compelling life story, he provides a strong and positive contrast to the cranky grandparents’ club of Democratic candidates. Throughout the campaign, polls have shown that Rubio is the GOP’s strongest competition against Hillary Clinton — he’s the “electable conservative.”

He’s shown an ability to respond to negative attacks with wit and humor, a crucial skill in what will most certainly be a bare knuckles brawl of an election. The contrast between the Rubio campaign’s lighthearted self-mocking in #RubioCrimeSpree and the ongoing drip-drip-drip of news stories about classified information on Clinton’s email server could not be sharper.

Not all first term Senators are created equal

As we enter the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, being able to say “I told you so” is little comfort to conservatives who warned he was poorly prepared for the presidency.

Before taking the Oath of Office seven years ago, Obama had been the quintessential backbencher. Educated at some of America’s top colleges, he left only the faintest of impressions (compare this with the many interviews of Sen. Ted Cruz’s college classmates and stories of his younger years). Obama’s biggest accomplishment in the Illinois State Senate was competing for the record for most frequently voting “present,” and his U.S. Senate career consisted of little more than getting elected, showing America his great talent for reading TelePrompters at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and then running for President.

It makes sense that Rubio’s competitors would want to lump him in with Obama. The remaining governors in the race — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — all say that their executive experience makes them more qualified for the presidency, and Donald Trump has made similar arguments about his business experience. But in contrast to Obama, Rubio’s path to the presidential campaign trail reveals a history of leadership and conservative decision-making that would serve him well as President.

A record of conservative accomplishments in the Florida Legislature

For Republican voters who want to see a proven record of actually enacting a conservative agenda, Rubio’s tenure in the Florida House of Representatives should be extremely encouraging.

The Florida Legislature has been under Republican control since 1996, and because of term limits (state representatives are limited to four two-year terms), the leadership changes frequently. Rubio was a standout almost immediately, being tapped to serve as Majority Whip less than a year after he was first elected, then advancing to Majority Leader and finally Florida’s first Cuban-American Speaker.

One of Rubio’s last acts before taking up the Speaker’s gavel was to chair a special committee to bolster private property protections in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. New London, which broadened the scope of the government’s “eminent domain” power to seize private property for public uses. Prior to Kelo, “public use” was generally defined as direct government uses, like building highways and schools. The Court’s decision in Kelo allowed the government to take private residential homes and give them to another private owner, a developer who wanted to knock them down and build a resort, with the justification that the area was blighted and the new resort would bring in more tax revenue.

While Trump has repeatedly praised the Kelo decision and has personally sought to profit by using this government power for his own benefit, Florida was one of several Republican-controlled legislatures that quickly moved to push back against what they viewed as an alarming expansion of government power. The bill Rubio spearheaded was one of the strongest anti-Kelo efforts, specifically prohibiting the taking of private property to eliminate or prevent slums, blight conditions, or public nuisances.

When you talk to anyone who worked with Rubio during his time in the Florida Legislature, you’ll hear consistent stories about his intelligence, attention to detail, and passion for policy discussions. His staffers knew he would not only read the briefing papers they prepared for him, but that he would pepper them with questions and challenge any conclusions, wanting to make sure he fully understood the issues. A policy wonk at heart, the way he led the Florida House as Speaker would leave a lasting impression not just on his fellow representatives, but statewide, laying the groundwork for his successful Senate run.

A very influential little book

In September 2005, Rubio kicked off his Speakership by giving a gift to each of his fellow Representatives: a book that said “100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future” on the cover and blank pages inside. Rubio told them to collect ideas from their constituents before the next session started. A website was set up to accept submissions, and “idearaiser” town hall events were held around the state.

Originally inspired by Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” the 100 Innovative Ideas went far beyond the scope of that 1994 plan that helped bring the Republicans back to power in the Congress and was far more grassroots in nature. State Rep. Dennis Baxley (currently back in the House after a break that allowed the term limit clock to restart) served with Rubio as Speaker Pro Tem and recalled how truly revolutionary the program was. “People finally thought someone was listening,” said Baxley, describing how “exciting” and “transformational” the town hall meeting were.

Eventually, the top ideas were gathered, reviewed and vetted, and Rubio released the finished book, setting forth his agenda and laying out the reasons behind each item. Turning the book into law required Rubio to fight a series of fierce battles, with a skeptical Florida political press, Democrats who were the minority but were nonetheless a vocal opposition, the moderate Republicans who controlled the Florida Senate, and finally Gov. Charlie Crist, who flirted with big-government liberal ideas long before he left the Republican Party.

In the end, all 100 ideas passed the Florida House, and 57 ended up surviving the Senate and Crist’s veto pen to become law. Having the agenda in such a clear, visible format — not to mention the grassroots origins of the ideas — emboldened Rubio and the House Republicans to push back against the critics and naysayers.

A tough negotiator

For the ideas that didn’t pass, Rubio still managed to negotiate some partial victories. Jim Geraghty at National Review wrote a detailed article last year describing how Rubio fought hard for a “bold” tax reform that would have reduced property taxes by $40 to $50 billion. A 1 percent sales tax increase would replace lost education funding, and counties would have the option to eliminate their primary residence property tax all together in exchange for an additional 1.5 percent sales tax.

This was a period where skyrocketing real estate values were creating financial stresses for homeowners worried about affording their property taxes, and the end result of Rubio’s tax plan would have been to shift more of the state’s tax burden from Florida residents to the tourists and owners of vacation homes.

Crist and the Florida Senate proposed a significantly smaller tax cut, then dug in their heels and let the sixty-day legislative session expire. However, as Geraghty noted, “the issue had generated enough public interest that not delivering any property tax relief would be a political disaster, so both chambers agreed to a special session.” The final tax relief that was passed was not as sweeping as Rubio originally hoped, but does illustrate his ability to “drive a hard bargain” and battle until the end with “Republicans he deemed as too passive and comfortable with the status quo.”

A grassroots tea party victory

When Rubio first announced he was running for Senate on May 5, 2009, few political pundits gave him a chance. Crist would toss his hat in the ring a week later, and immediately be on the receiving end of a deluge of endorsements and contribution checks. At the time, Crist was still a Republican and enjoyed sky-high approval ratings, and had much stronger name recognition. Still, Florida conservatives remembered Rubio’s leadership as Speaker, and the way he had tapped into the conservative grassroots to create the “100 Innovative Ideas” agenda.

Behind the scenes, Crist supporters and other party establishment figures were pressuring Rubio to run for Attorney General. The seat was open for 2010 because Bill McCollum was leaving to run for Governor (he would lose the Republican primary to Rick Scott). Rubio was promised that if he ran for Attorney General and did not fight Crist for the Senate seat, then the field would be cleared for him.

Rubio’s friend, State Rep. Baxley, resigned from his position as the Christian Coalition Executive Director so he could endorse Rubio, remembers discussing the idea of switching to the AG race. Rubio told Baxley that his wife Jeanette, was fully on board with him continuing to fight for the Senate seat, but he could see how the other path might be easier. “Marco, you know what Charlie is,” Baxley recalls telling Rubio. “That 70 percent approval rating is a mile wide and an inch deep, and once it rips, it’s going to rip wide open. You just need to get on a statewide ballot, let people know who you are, and you just might win.”

Crist, as expected, was the immediate front runner in the early polls – by what seemed to be an insurmountable margin. In fact, one of the earliest polls showed Rubio with a barely-breathing 3 percent, a number that his earliest supporters would later tout as a badge of honor, calling themselves Rubio’s “3 percent club.”

The funny thing about polls, though, is that they aren’t frozen in place. It seemed like every time a newspaper ran a story that Crist was a “sure thing,” Crist’s poll numbers got a little bit lower and Rubio’s got a little bit higher. Conservative activists embraced Rubio’s campaign, inviting him to tea party meetings and Republican clubs, where he would win over voters a few dozen at a time.

“I remember thinking, how in the world is he going to beat Charlie Crist,” said Linda O’Keefe, an early tea party organizer in the Central Florida area. “But Rubio was everywhere, and he was so willing to work very hard on his campaign, we called him the Energizer Bunny.” O’Keefe remembers that her Republican Women’s Club in West Orange County was the first in the area to book him, but then “boom, he was everywhere…he was incredibly popular among the Republican women’s club.”

Rubio’s campaign also coincided with Twitter becoming a prominent social media platform, and he was one of the first candidates to embrace Twitter, writing his own posts and enjoying being able to personally communicate with supporters around the state. With Crist having millions in the bank, being able to share his message for free online was an invaluable resource for Rubio.

So as summer turned to fall in 2009, Crist’s 35 point lead shrank, dwindling to just 1o points by November 2009.
One month later, Rasmussen declared the race a statistical tie, and then just after the New Year, a Quinnipiac poll had Rubio up by 3 points. Crist would never regain the lead, continuing to fall further and further behind Rubio until he finally dropped out of the Republican primary  altogether, to run as an independent. Rubio’s momentum was too strong to beat, and he waltzed to victory, capturing nearly half of the vote in a three-way election against Crist and the Democratic nominee, Rep. Kendrick Meek.

The dreaded “Gang of Eight”

Probably the biggest obstacle Rubio faces in winning over conservative voters is his participation in the “Gang of Eight,” the Senators who worked on an immigration bill back in 2013. After years of inaction by both parties, countless headlines about border crises, shocking crimes committed by illegal immigrants, and concerns about terrorism, it’s not hard to see why Trump’s hardline rhetoric on the issue has won followers.

There are unfortunately a number of conservative media outlets that continually write about the bill as if it is still an active, pending piece of legislation, and misrepresent the actual provisions of the bill, so let’s take a moment and recall some of the context around the bill. (And just as a reminder: the “Gang of Eight” bill is dead, having never even received a committee hearing in the House, and with the Republicans back in control of the Senate, it will not be revived. Rubio himself has rejected the bill and said repeatedly that it’s not the correct solution.)

During Rubio’s tenure as Florida Speaker, he fought for his 100 Ideas agenda that Florida Democrats publicly decried as “extreme,” but he was still able to sit down at the table and talk with them, and several of the ideas passed with various degrees of support from across the partisan aisle.

In the U.S. Senate in 2013, the Democrats were in control, and Obama was making speeches demanding that Congress take action on immigration reform or he would be “forced” to act. The Gang of Eight may have included Rubio and three other Republicans, but the Democrats were in control and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was much less amenable to dealmaking than the Democrats back in the Florida Legislature had been.

An imperfect bill

I had several conversations with sources close to Rubio during this time, and the expectation had been that Rubio would be able to push the Senate bill to the right further than Schumer and the Democrats would have done on their own, and then the bill would head to the Republican-controlled House, which would pass a more conservative version, and then the two chambers would have to negotiate a middle ground that, again, would be more conservative than the Senate Democrats would have drafted by themselves.

No one (and I’m including my conversations with several GOP members of the House and Republican staffers) expected the Senate bill to be the final version. With the Democrats controlling the White House and the Senate, there was little expectation that an ideal bill could be passed, but the whole reason Rubio was willing to sit at the table was to push the bill as far to the right as possible.

What the Senate ended up passing was met with loud and immediate criticism on the right. Rubio’s participation had resulted in the bill enhancing border security and visa tracking, and requiring all employers to use the “e-Verify” system to confirm employment eligibility, but many conservatives did not feel the language was strong enough, and had little faith the Obama administration would be tough in enforcing these provisions.

Misrepresentations about the bill

Without getting too far into the weeds regarding a bill that is dead, I’ll just add a reminder that some of these critics were egregiously dishonest about what the bill actually did. It’s easy to throw around the word “amnesty,” but there was never a version of the bill that granted citizenship without background checks, fines, waiting periods, and other security provisions, and any action that would have allowed those here illegally to obtain any form of legal status was contingent on first increasing border security funding. Rubio does not support amnesty.

Other critics were just flat-out dishonest about certain provisions of the bill, most notably regarding the “Marcophones.” There are vast areas of farm and ranch land near the Texas border that are very remote, and cell phone reception ranges from unreliable to nonexistent. The ongoing violence from Mexican drug cartels and human smugglers is a security risk for those farmers and ranchers. One of the provision of the Gang of Eight bill authorized funding for satellite phones in areas where cell phone reception was not reliable or not available.

There’s a valid debate to be had about whether the government should pay for satellite phones for these border farmers and ranchers. What’s not valid are the claims that this provision allowed the government to buy cell phones for illegal immigrants. The exact language of the bill said it was to allow grants for “satellite telephone communications systems and service,” for those who lived or worked along the border and were “at greater risk of border violence due to the lack of cellular service at his or her residence or business and his or her proximity to the Southern border.”  Anyone telling you Rubio wrote a bill to buy iPhones for illegal immigrants is either ignorant or lying to you.

Over the past few years, there have been a number of people who have claimed that Rubio has said he supports amnesty in Spanish language interviews. I debunked this in a detailed article I wrote for Breitbart last year that I strongly encourage you to read, and I would offer the friendly reminder that Spanish is not some obscure language only spoken by a handful of villages in a remote corner of the Alps. Spanish is the second most popular language on Earth, and the most popular second language learned in the United States.

If Rubio were actually saying something different in Spanish, you would see quotes and video, and it would be easy to verify. I’ve been following this issue from the beginning and I’ve yet to see any of Rubio’s critics actually provide direct evidence of him saying something different in Spanish. Certainly none of them have done a line-by-line analysis like I did with the Univision transcript. Instead, what you will see is the critics just telling you that Rubio supports amnesty and adding on their own context without any original sources that prove their points.

The people spoke, and Rubio listened

Still, a lot of the conservative criticism of the Gang of Eight bill was fair, and Obama’s track record validated the concerns he would not be tough on those who sought to take advantage of our immigration laws. Rubio, as the most conservative member of the Gang of Eight, bore the brunt of the attacks from conservatives angry about the bill, and he revoked his support of it.

Long before the rise of the tea party movement, people have complained that elected officials do not listen to them. With the Gang of Eight bill, Rubio’s constituents in Florida and conservative activists around the country strongly objected to the bill, and he changed his mind. Isn’t that what we want?

Republicans howled when Democrats used procedural tricks to thwart a Republican filibuster and pass Obamacare, despite the unpopularity of the bill. With the immigration bill, conservatives made it clear to Rubio that the bill was unacceptable, and he dropped any effort to support it, publicly denounced it, and has said repeatedly that he no longer supports a comprehensive immigration bill.

Rubio’s prediction came true

Keep in mind too, there was the looming threat from the President that if Congress didn’t act, he would by executive order. And Obama did exactly what he threatened (and what Rubio had predicted), first through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and then the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program. DACA allowed illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before their sixteenth birthday (later expanded even further by Obama) to obtain a work permit and be protected from deportation, and DAPA granted similar protection from deportation to illegal immigrants who had children who were citizens or permanent residents.

Thanks to a multi-state lawsuit led by Texas’ Greg Abbott (as Attorney General, before he became Governor a year ago), DAPA was blocked before it could be put into place, but DACA has been operative for several years now, allowing many illegal immigrants to avoid deportation. The lack of any legislative action, and the continued malfeasance of the Obama administration, means that what we have now is a de facto amnesty.

Better hope for solutions from Republicans

Our current immigration system is a disaster. Those who attempt to comply with the legal immigration process face years of effort and substantial costs, with little clarity or predictability. Obama’s DACA executive orders have many people in limbo, temporarily protected from deportation but no way to actually get in compliance with our immigration laws.

On the flip side, Americans are justifiably frustrated and horrified when we read stories about terrorists like the San Bernardino killers entering the country with inadequate screening, or the Obama administration’s refusal to even try to keep track of the unaccompanied minors who flooded across the border last year.

The bottom line is that no one, anywhere on the spectrum of the immigration debate, should be satisfied with the status quo. There is some hope, though, as we enter Obama’s last year in office. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has made it very clear that he will not play ball with the Democrats on immigration. Assuming Republicans can maintain control of the House and Senate, the type of immigration reform a President Marco Rubio would support would be able to first address the border security and enforcement concerns.

Conservatives did not like the immigration bill that was encouraged by a Democratic President and hatched out of a Democrat-controlled Senate committee. The kind of bill that would result from Republican-controlled committees in the House and Senate, destined for a Republican sitting in the Oval Office, would be a different creature all together.

A final note about what kind of person Rubio is

I have known Rubio since he was a state representative, so young-looking that Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings once mistook him for a legislative aide and asked him to make copies. He was well-known as an extremely talented speaker, and first attracted national attention with his passionate farewell speech at the conclusion of his time as Florida Speaker.

But let’s be honest, after seven years of Obama’s TelePrompter wizardry, we are rightfully skeptical of politicians who deliver eloquent speeches. What’s far more important, in my opinion, is what those politicians say when they don’t have cameras pointed at them and millions of people watching.

What you hear Marco Rubio say on the national debate stage in 2016, are the same things I heard him say when it was just a few of us gathered around a lunch table in Kissimmee, Florida when he was making the final preparations to announce he would challenge Crist for the Republican nomination for Florida’s Senate seat. It’s the same things he said when it was a few dozen Young Republicans and other supportive friends we asked to “donate $20.10 for Marco 2010” at a fundraiser I organized in June 2009 in Winter Park.  It’s the same things I overheard him say backstage at a recent event in Dallas, when he stopped to take photos with the hotel kitchen and security staff and then chat a moment with me before getting back on the campaign bus.

Politicians are notorious for changing their personalities, to chase opinion polls and as they rise up the electoral ranks, but Rubio still sounds like the same person we knew back in Florida. He has a lot of the same staffers and allies around him, and remembers and appreciates those who have been loyal friends. I’ve interviewed him more times than I can count, been in small meetings with just him and a handful of staffers, and there’s no “off the record” Rubio that is any different from the one you see on television.

Turning grassroots ideas into action

This is a critically important election year, and Republicans need to find a nominee who can not only defeat Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders, or a nominated-at-the-convention Joe Biden if Clinton’s campaign crashes), but who can actually support a conservative agenda from the White House. Rubio’s record shows he doesn’t just give good conservative speeches, he doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk.

He has a long track record of listening to grassroots conservatives, gathering the resources and expertise needed to turn ideas into bills, and then the political negotiating skills to turn those ideas into actual laws. You can see that in both his successes in the Florida House, and in stumbles like the Gang of Eight bill (again, conservatives told him they hated the bill, and he listened). Rubio is also one of the only ones who has been able to actually take action against Obamacare, forcing the rollback of the risk corridor provisions that has sharply limited how much taxpayer money could be used to bail out insurance companies, and may hasten the bill’s demise.

Multiple metrics show Rubio has a solidly conservative — and even anti-establishment! — voting record. Add in his electability and appeal to independent voters the GOP desperately needs and the Florida Senator deserves to be on any conservative’s short list for the nomination.

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.