Marco Rubio’s financial woes could be political gold

Updated 4:30 PM EDT, Wed June 10, 2015
(CNN) —  

One presidential candidate and her husband made $30 million since the start of 2014 giving paid speeches.

One ran a Fortune 500 company and recently revealed she and her husband had a net worth of $59 million. Another is so wealthy he bragged of owning a Gucci store that was worth more than 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Another worked for multiple multinational banks that earned him millions and was born to a moneyed political dynasty.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, recently had to liquidate a retirement fund to pay for a new fridge.

That detail was part of an array of questionable financial decisions – including bad real-estate deals, hundreds of thousands of dollars in school debt and a handful of luxury purchases, including an $80,000 boat – that have left Rubio one of the poorest candidates in the GOP presidential field, with an estimated net worth of just $444,000 in 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Taken together, Rubio’s financial choices prompted The New York Times to outline “persistent doubts about his financial management” that could impact his presidential bid in a profile this week.

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But they’re also, in a field full of millionaires, a potential asset in the race to appeal to average voters that will choose America’s next president in 2016.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, joked that Rubio’s now got “a new slogan.”

“He’s just like you – right down to the flaws.”

“There are millions of Americans,” Sabato noted, “who don’t have trust funds and who struggle as we have and who’ve made some mistakes on the road.”

Avoiding a Romney redux

During a cycle when growing income inequality and the shrinking middle class are going to take center stage, Rubio’s financial struggles could help him rise above the pack as an Average Joe capable of appealing to middle-class Americans also experiencing the same difficulties.

“These are problems that everyday Americans face. I don’t see it as a bad thing,” said Nelson Diaz, a Republican lobbyist and top aide to Rubio during his time as speaker of the Florida House. “Whether it’s Marco or any other candidate, the fact that they can relate to these issues gives them a different type of understanding and experience when they go into the White House.”

The GOP is still smarting from the party’s 2012 presidential loss, which was due in large part to Democrats’ successful attempts to paint Mitt Romney – with his career as a venture capitalist, an owner of a car elevator and his derision of the “47% of people … who are dependent on government” – as out of touch.

There’s been some hand-wringing within the party over a Romney redux in 2016, with millionaires like Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and even Ben Carson, who’s profited greatly from a series of bestselling books and paid speeches, jockeying to be the field’s standard-bearer. Jeb Bush, the establishment pick for the nomination, made millions in the private sector working for banks and serving on the boards of a number of corporations.

While the Clintons’ personal wealth has drawn heavy scrutiny, and Republicans see it as a major weakness in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it could be tougher to exploit with a Republican millionaire landing the shots.

But a candidate like Rubio could both be a credible messenger for attacks on the Clinton’s earnings and an appealing figure for average Americans looking for a candidate who understands their financial and legal struggles.

Diaz joked that, in particular, the idea that Rubio’s four traffic tickets over 18 years could be damaging for him was laughable.

“In Florida, that makes you a very good driver,” he said.

Sabato suggested Rubio could make light of it on the stump: “I hope that everyone who’s gotten a traffic citation like me will vote for me. I’d win in a landslide!”

The ultimate American story

Rubio is, of course, not the only Republican contender who can tout his modest means on the campaign trail. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker owes between $15,000 and $150,000 in credit card and car loan debt and frequently brags of shopping at Kohl’s.

But the Florida senator’s financial troubles also play into the broader narrative Rubio’s attempting to build around his campaign, that of the ultimate American story: A son of Cuban immigrants who worked his way up from a modest start in Miami to a Florida senator and presidential prospect.

His autobiography chronicles his immigrant parents’ struggles to gain solid financial footing and provide a better life for their children, struggles Rubio frequently mentions on the campaign trail – almost as frequently as he jokes about the nearly $150,000 in student loan debt he’s only just managed to pay down in the past few years.

And his allies say his financial struggles are simply the byproduct of a career spent focused on what matters, rather than making money. Charlie Black, John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign chairman who’s still neutral in the race, said that it was typical for those who commit themselves to public service to have tight finances.

“My observation about Marco has always been that he put public service ahead of going out and making money, and getting wealthy and getting really solid finances,” Black said.

To that effect, Rubio’s campaign pushed back on the Times’ piece by arguing, yes, the candidate has faced financial trouble in the past, but it’s because his priorities are in the right place.

“What The Times misses is that getting rich is not what has driven Senator Rubio’s financial decisions. His goal at this stage in his life is to provide his four children with a good home, a quality education, and a safe and happy upbringing,” campaign communications director Alex Conant said in a statement.

Still, even Rubio’s allies warn that the burden still remains on the senator to reassure Americans that he’s capable of getting America’s fiscal house in order even though he may have struggled with his own. In particular, his use of a state party credit card to pay for personal expenditures at times – an oversight he acknowledged and rectified by settling some of the mistaken payments out of his own pocket – could haunt him.

Florida state Rep. Dennis Baxley, a Republican who served with Rubio in the legislature, said the financial issues could “play both ways for him.”

“It’s always hard to find the sweet spot,” he said. “It could be very positive for him if ordinary Americans who are trying to make it see that he’s one of them.

“But on the other hand, it could be a big question for some folks. We’re talking about running the biggest company in the United States – the U.S. government – and he needs to convince the world he’s got things under control.”