Martinez, chairwoman of the Republican Governors Association, said Thursday that she is endorsing Rubio, opting to side with the senator from Florida over Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
She also plans to hit the campaign trail with Rubio in the coming days – in Kansas today and in Florida on Saturday.
Her public endorsement came as many mainstream Republicans seek to block a Trump nomination as the New York billionaire leads a narrowed field that now includes U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“Marco Rubio is a compelling leader who can unite the country around conservative principles that will improve the lives of all Americans,” Martinez said in a statement.
“The stakes for our great country are too high – and the differences between the candidates too great – for me to remain neutral in this race,” Martinez added. “I wholeheartedly trust Marco to keep us safe and ensure a better tomorrow, and I look forward to campaigning with him later this week.”
Martinez, the nation’s first elected Hispanic female governor, had sidestepped questions in recent days about whether she would vote for Trump, but she has criticized some of his immigration-related comments in the past.
It’s unclear how big of a boost Rubio might get from the governor’s endorsement, as Rubio is third among GOP candidates in delegates won – behind Trump and Cruz. He has won just one of the 15 states that have had caucuses or primaries, but has accumulated 110 delegates via a strong second-place finish in Virginia to go with his win in Minnesota.
Longtime New Mexico political analyst Brian Sanderoff said Martinez will bring credibility and at least short-term buzz to Rubio’s campaign.
“The fact the governor came out in support of Rubio is the latest example of mainstream Republican elected officials that have clear concerns about Donald Trump,” Sanderoff told the Journal. “The big question is whether it’s too little, too late.”
New Mexico’s primary election does not take place until June 7, but contests are on tap this month in Kansas, Florida, Idaho, Arizona, Utah and several other states.
Sanderoff said he expects Martinez to play a visible role in Rubio’s campaign push in several of those states – notably Florida and Arizona.
Both Martinez and Rubio have Hispanic roots; Martinez grew up in El Paso and is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, while Rubio is a Cuban-American from Miami.
The two have worked together in the past, including in 2012 to secure the release of U.S. Marine veteran Jon Hammar Jr., a Floridian, from a jail in a Mexican border city.
“I have known Marco for several years, and he has gone out of his way to reach out to me to discuss how important issues impact New Mexico long before he ever entered the race for president,” Martinez said in a statement to the Journal.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Martinez’s endorsement of Rubio matters more in New Mexico than it does on the national stage.
He said that Martinez could be a useful surrogate in a general election campaign ad – if Rubio were to secure the GOP nomination – but that her national image has been damaged by a high-profile December incident in which Santa Fe police responded to a ruckus at a holiday party hosted by the governor.
“I don’t think she’s a logical VP for Rubio,” Sabato said Thursday, referring to the vice presidency, a post Martinez has repeatedly insisted she’s not interested in.
Meanwhile, Martinez’s decision to endorse Rubio is likely to ignite questions about the RGA’s relationship with Trump, should the front-runner win the party’s nomination.
In a Thursday statement, Democratic Governors Association spokesman Jared Leopold called it “unprecedented” for the head of the RGA to refuse to back the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.
“Gov. Martinez’s endorsement of Marco Rubio is nothing more than a smokescreen to duck talking about Donald Trump,” Leopold said.
But Sanderoff pointed out that Martinez’s endorsement is for the primary election cycle only, meaning she could still throw her support behind Trump for the general election this fall.
The timing of Martinez’s out-of-state stumping is also of note. The governor will be campaigning with Rubio with less than week left until her March 9 deadline to act on bills passed during the 30-day legislative session that ended last month.
Journal Washington Bureau reporter Michael Coleman contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.