Marco Rubio Ted Cruz

As Ben Carson’s campaign crumbles and Donald Trump’s oft-predicted collapse draws closer, the race for the Republican nomination has begun to boil down to two men: Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Superficially, they share many traits: both of Cuban ancestry, both young, both first-term senators, yet their status as rivals has brought them into conflict on the few points where they differ — on immigration policy most stridently. Rubio argues for legalization and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, while Cruz favors enforcement of the law. Both sides came prepared for the skirmish, and why not? After all, they’ve done it before.

In 2013, three years into Rubio’s term in the Senate, he was already being eyed as a presidential candidate. His conservative positions gave him inroads with the Republican base, while his charm made him attractive to moderates. Perhaps searching for a way to differentiate himself in preparation for a run, Rubio accepted Chuck Schumer’s invitation to join the so-called “Gang of Eight” to advance “immigration reform” (S.744). It provided legal status and citizenship to illegal aliens who paid a fine and jumped through a metaphorical hoop or two. It also made a hodgepodge of modifications to the immigration system, engineered to ensure passage.

Rubio’s role was envisioned as that of a salesman. He had earned the respect of conservatives, so he was the natural choice to try to win them over. He did more than that, though, and Schumer would later say that Rubio was the architect of the path to citizenship. A gifted and experienced legislator, Rubio crafted the greatest challenge to conservative’s rule-of-law opposition to amnesty for illegal aliens. With John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Schumer and Dick Durbin combined with Rubio’s Tea Party support, the bill was a political juggernaut.

Combining Democrats and Republicans who chose to vote with the Democrats, the bill had filibuster-proof support in the Senate, and amnesty supporters would only need to win over 17 of 233 House Republicans to ensure final passage. Presented as a compromise measure and a necessary reform, given weight by Rubio’s conservative credentials, the bill was unstoppable. The stage was set for Rubio, the face of the Gang of Eight, to overwhelm conservative respect for the rule of law, notch a major bipartisan legislative accomplishment, and pave a path to the presidency for himself.

The year before, in a hotly contested primary fight, the little-known Solicitor General of Texas had already pulled off the impossible and beaten the most powerful elected official in Texas, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, in the race for Kay Bailey Hutchinson’s Senate seat. Ted Cruz won on a promise of doing as he promised, and he’d promised to fight for enforcement of Texas and US law on immigration. With less than a year of legislative experience, facing an overwhelming coalition, he faced a daunting task if he intended to keep his promise.

Joined by longtime hardliner Jeff Sessions and fellow first-term senator Mike Lee, Cruz kept his promise and stood on the frontlines of the opposition to Rubio’s bill. All three held positions on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the committee tasked with hearing the bill, where they were badly outnumbered.

Faced with long odds, the conservatives on the committee took a long view. Cruz set out to destroy the bill, not in the Senate, where its passage was a foregone conclusion, but in the House, where the Republican establishment’s electoral disaster in 2012 had done less damage, and where Cruz’s connections could help catalyze opposition. If the credibility that Rubio’s conservative credentials lent the bill could be destroyed, House Republicans’ own constituents would force them into opposition. The lynchpin of the effort was Cruz’s amendment stripping the path to citizenship. Rubio and the rest of the Gang of Eight claimed that the crux of the bill was merely a reform to the immigration system. They used the clearly broken system as a club to bring Republican opponents into the fold. If that was the goal, argued Cruz, then wouldn’t it be wiser to remove the path to citizenship while keeping the rest of the bill? His amendment was the “compromise that could pass,” so why not support it?

The answer was obvious and fatal to the bill: removing the path to citizenship could only make the bill more likely to pass, so the only reason to oppose it was that the purpose of the bill was not immigration reform, but a path to citizenship. When Cruz proposed his amendment, it gave conservatives in the House and Senate the ammunition they needed to fight it. The Senate was already a foregone conclusion, but the battle with the junior senator from Texas left S.744 crippled. House Republicans had to stand for reelection in little more than a year, and few Representatives found it appealing to have to explain a vote for a bill whose entire purpose was not just amnesty, but a path to citizenship. A companion bill was never considered by the House, and Rubio’s four-lane highway to the presidency died just past the Senate chambers.

It is, perhaps, fitting that it was a Texan who forced amnesty’s moneyed and powerful supporters into a Pyrrhic victory over the hopelessly outnumbered opposition in the Senate. After all, after a victory in Texas many years before, one of Santa Anna’s officers was said to remark that “another such victory will ruin us.” Ted Cruz and his cadre of Senate conservatives couldn’t stop Rubio’s bill, but in losing they defeated it.

More striking, though, is the symmetry on the two sides of the bill. Rubio, although allied with more senior colleagues, molded the bill and was to be the ramrod that forced it past any Republicans still loyal to the party platform. Cruz, also a first-term senator of Cuban ancestry elected with Tea Party support and also allied with more senior colleagues, provided irreplaceable contributions to the masterful strategy that ensured the bill’s failure. Without Rubio, the bill wouldn’t have been the juggernaut that it was, and without Cruz, according to Senator Sessions, Rubio’s bill would have been signed into law.

Two years later, Cruz and Rubio are once again matching wits. This time Cruz is far from the unknown senator he was in 2013, and has a campaign behind him every bit the equal of Rubio’s. Whether Rubio can better his performance and finally defeat his doppelganger or whether the Texan will once again lead a conservative coalition to victory remains to be seen, but voters should remember the two senators’ previous battle. Marco Rubio stood up as amnesty’s champion, leading the apparently unstoppable push for a path to citizenship, and Ted Cruz stopped him.