[Cross-posted at Sunshine State Sarah]
Florida's controversial decision to move our presidential primary election to January 31 continues to inspire headlines, most notably in several articles last week by Robert Stacy McCain, in which he reported that his sources told him that Cesar Conda, Senator Marco Rubio's chief of staff, had sought to influence the primary date in order to give an advantage to Mitt Romney, and also Rubio on the unreliable presumption that he would be Romney's choice for a running mate:
Now, I like a good juicy political scandal as much as anyone, but after spending the last week making phone calls to my own sources around the state, I'm wondering if we're not looking at this story from the completely wrong angle.
First of all, let's clear up a few misperceptions. Cesar Conda is the Chief of Staff for Rubio's Senate office, but his job duties are completely separate from Rubio's campaign. Conda is responsible for supervising about 50 staffers in eight offices (one in Washington, D.C., the others in Florida) and working with Senator Rubio to advance his policy agenda. Entanglements in Florida politics -especially something as controversial as the primary date - are not within the job description.
To the contrary, such overt interference like Conda is being accused of would be viewed as detrimental for Rubio. You will note that since being elected to the Senate, Rubio has stayed neutral in the key contested Republican primaries, such as the 2012 Senate and Presidential races. To have a key staffer directly and personally taking action on behalf of another candidate would be an unwelcome distraction and Rubio would never condone it.
Moreover, while it is true that Conda worked for Romney, it was far from his first political job: he has served as a policy advisor for Dick Cheney, Dan Quayle, Representative Jack Kemp, Senator Bob Dole, Senator Bob Kasten, and Senator Spence Abraham. Conda has also served on the Board of Directors for Empower America and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, chaired the Executive Committee for the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, and served as as Senior Fellow for FreedomWorks. That's a solid conservative resume.
I've also confirmed that Conda does not know any of the people who were on the Committee that was appointed to select the primary date. One source close to both Rubio and Conda told me that "the notion that [Conda] has any influence over the Committee's decision to move the Florida primary date is ridiculous and not based on facts."
Let's take a closer look at some of those facts. Besides the reality that there is no guarantee that Romney would pick Rubio as his running mate (ask Charlie Crist about how that particular dream can fall flat), the crucial detail that so many are missing is that Rubio has been advocating for an early Florida primary for years. In fact, he was one of the original champions of the idea.
In Rubio's 2006 book, 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future, "Idea #37" is "Securing Florida's Place on the National Stage." In a chapter dedicated solely to Florida's presidential primary, he specifically advocates moving up the date in order to "force candidates to be tested by more diverse populations and to address a wider range of issues" and "highlight Florida's concerns and issues [in a way that] would ensure our national influence in choosing a presidential candidate."
Rubio turned this idea into reality during 2007 as Speaker of the Florida House, when he spearheaded the effort to change the 2008 primary to January, and he has continued to advocate for an early primary throughout this election cycle.
Basically, to believe that Rubio is involved in some diabolical conspiracy to change Florida's primary date to help Romney requires one to believe that Rubio set this plan in motion years ago, when there wasn't even a discussion of Rubio running for the U.S. Senate, much less being considered for a Vice Presidential ticket. Marco Rubio may have many talents, but somehow I doubt being psychic is one of them!
Reality check: publicly announcing that you think something is a good idea - and working for years to accomplish it - just isn't how conspiracies work.
As far as the timing of the Committee's meeting and vote, that is due to the specific restrictions of Florida's Legislative calendar. The accusation that this was a strategic move to undercut Herman Cain's Presidency 5 straw poll win also doesn't have any legs, especially when Rubio, Speaker Dean Cannon, and many other Florida political leaders have been advocating for an early primary all year. Not a darn thing has changed in any of their messaging on the primary date.
Let's sum up the story so far: we have Cesar Conda, who is far more of a policy wonk than politico, working for Rubio, who has advocated for an early Florida primary since 2006 and has repeatedly, strongly, and expressly stated that he is remaining neutral in the Republican presidential race for now...
...And we are supposed to believe not only that Conda would defy his boss by interfering on Romney's behalf, but that he is such a powerful figure that he can make Florida politicians dance to his tune? People he has never even met? Especially Speaker Cannon - he's my State Representative - and the idea that some D.C. staffer could push him around is too ridiculous to even waste the oxygen to laugh at it. Give me a break.
What makes far more sense is the gossip I kept hearing over and over this past week as I called around about this story: that it was a scheme straight from the old Crist-LeMieux playbook. That gang has two scores to settle: punishing Rubio for humiliating Crist in the 2010 Senate race, and, since many of them are now working for Rick Perry, bringing down Romney to help resuscitate Perry's campaign in Florida.
That may initially sound like a bit of a stretch, but it lines up logically a lot better than any of the nonsense about Conda, and we all know that the Charlie Crist Republicans are no stranger to dirty tricks. One of my Tallahassee sources says that this story has the Crist-LeMieux team's "dirty fingerprints all over it" and this specific type of triangulated strategy - set up a third party to hit your enemy for you - is their "trademark."
And isn't that what happened? Stacy McCain posted the story on his blog and at American Spectator, and the conservative blogosphere howled with anger. Just look at the comments section and linked articles at McCain's original post.
Judge for yourself: what makes more sense? That some D.C. staffer has some dark and nefarious power over Florida politicians he's never even met, and Rubio psychically predicted over five years ago that he would be a vice presidential contender? Or that a group of political operatives with an axe (or two) to grind would spread a false rumor?
UPDATE: Here's Stacy's take:
...What am I getting at? Some of Rubio’s allies suspect that the Crist/LeMieux/Perry forces in Florida, eager to strike a blow against Romney, and also damage the hated Rubio, spread the rumor of a Romney/Rubio conspiracy to move up Florida’s primary to Jan. 31. By blaming it on Rubio’s chief of staff, Cesar Conda, they help LeMieux in next year’s Senate primary, because Rubio is also viewed as an ally of Adam Hasner...
[Cross-posted at Sunshine State Sarah]