Can Ivanka Trump defeat Marco Rubio?

Ex-first daughter starts with high name ID but has never run for office, and beating incumbent senators in primaries is not easy

Ivanka Trump faces a tough race if she decides to challenge Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in a Republican primary next year, Gonzales writes.  (Photos by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call and Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images, composition by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
Ivanka Trump faces a tough race if she decides to challenge Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in a Republican primary next year, Gonzales writes. (Photos by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call and Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images, composition by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 3, 2021 at 5:30am

ANALYSIS — President Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party is well documented, but could Ivanka Trump really knock off Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in a GOP primary next year? Put me down as skeptical.

First of all, I’m not convinced the former president’s daughter even runs. If Ivanka does her homework and listens to some sober sources, she’ll find that challenging an incumbent senator in the primary will probably be one of the most difficult things she’s ever done, at least if she plans on winning. 

The reality of the current GOP being “Trump’s Republican Party” and the former president and his family reigning over Republicans is a nice narrative, but a more intentional look at an Ivanka vs. Marco matchup paints a daunting picture for the potential challenger. 

The bottom line is that it is difficult to defeat senators in primaries. It’s happened nine times in the past 40 years. That’s a 99.9 percent renomination rate across more than 500 senators going back to 1982. By those numbers, it’s pretty clear that it takes extraordinary circumstances for a senator to lose in a primary. 

Sure, Ivanka’s fans could look at those nine instances and say that 2022 would be extraordinary, considering Donald Trump’s unique charisma and popularity with base Republican voters. Those nine losses, however, aren’t easy comps to challenging Rubio. 

Three of the nine senators who lost renomination arguably took their races for granted and didn’t take their challengers seriously enough. Those include Indiana Republican Richard G. Lugar in 2012, Utah Republican Bob Bennett in 2010, and Illinois Democrat Alan J. Dixon in 1992. Rubio isn’t guaranteed to win, but Ivanka is not going to sneak up on him. 

Sam Brownback defeated appointed Sen. Sheila Frahm in the 1996 Kansas Republican primary and Roy Moore defeated appointed Sen. Luther Strange in the 2017 special election GOP primary. But neither Strange nor Frahm had been elected to the office in their own right, nor did they have time to establish themselves. Rubio, by contrast, has been elected statewide twice and is running for a third term.

During the 2010 cycle, Arlen Specter made a politically calculated party switch and subsequently lost the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania to Joe Sestak. Rubio may be painted as insufficiently pro-Trump because of comments during the 2016 presidential race or because he voted to ratify the Electoral College votes, but he’s a lifelong Republican.

Two other senators, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman lost their respective primaries in 2010 and 2006, but they went on to win reelection as write-in or third-party candidates, so that shouldn’t be particularly encouraging for Team Ivanka.

Maybe the best example for Ivanka would be New Hampshire in 2002 when John E. Sununu defeated Bob Smith in the Republican primary. That race isn’t a great comparison either considering Smith left the party briefly to run for president as an independent in 2000 and Sununu already represented half of the small state in the House and his father was previously governor. (His brother Chris is currently governor.) 

Yes, Ivanka would start the race with high name identification, which is an asset most primary challengers don’t have. But she’s never been elected to anything and doesn’t have a proven base of voter support. 

In general, I’m not convinced Donald Trump’s coalition is easily transferable to other people, including other members of the Trump family. Of course, Donald and Ivanka share the same last name, but their personalities appear to be considerably different. She’s shied away from her father’s plain-spoken style that has made him beloved to GOP voters. Her manicured social media channels are a far cry from her father’s stream of consciousness.

It’s also unclear how Ivanka would perform as a candidate — traveling the state constantly, endless fundraisers, and answering to a more critical press corps. Just because she’s been the daughter of a candidate and served as a White House adviser doesn’t mean she’d be great on the campaign trail herself. 

Being a senator is different from being a candidate. In the last 20 years of analyzing races, I’ve seen how some people make the smooth transition from business, medicine, law or even the military to being a candidate. For other people, it just doesn’t work, for a variety of reasons.

Even if Ivanka overcomes those challenges, her success assumes that GOP primary voters will look past her past life as a Democrat and shallow roots in Florida, aside from her father’s property. For some of the past senators who lost primaries (or came close to losing), it was because they had lost touch with the pulse back home. Ivanka wouldn’t have that edge on the ground against Rubio. 

I’m smart enough not to rule out Ivanka defeating Rubio and winning a Senate seat. But I think this would be a much more difficult race for her in reality than what it looks like on paper.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.

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