As far as we know, only one candidate for Florida’s open U.S. Senate seat has publicly spoken of killing someone.
Only one is a trained sniper and Arabic-speaking former CIA officer.
Only one has experience commanding an elite squad of counterterrorism hostage rescuers. Raising daughters as a single father. And making tens of millions as an entrepreneur.
In an election cycle where political and government experience seems more of a liability than an asset, newcomer Todd Wilcox, 49, may be the sleeper candidate in a wide-open race to succeed U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
His resume has more in common with Tony Stark of Iron Man than a typical contender, but if testosterone matters, Wilcox is a shoo-in.
“We’ve got to get back to being the America we once were,” Wilcox, in his clipped military cadence, told an enthusiastic crowd of Republican activists in north Tampa on Tuesday. “The entrepreneurial spirit. The accountability. When a man was a man. It’s time to elect a warrior.”
The winner of Florida’s Senate race could well determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate, but less than 90 days before the first ballots are mailed you would be hard pressed to find people who can name even one of the five leading Republicans running: Home builder and prolific campaign donor Carlos Beruff of Bradenton; U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach; U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores; Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami; and Wilcox of Orlando.
The contest has been overshadowed by Donald Trump and the presidential race, and so far none of the Republicans appears to be gaining traction. But Wilcox has been generating considerable buzz and enthusiasm below the radar, as the candidates quietly make the rounds of local party picnics and monthly business meetings.
“When he spoke at the last Hillsborough Lincoln Day Dinner — my gosh, when he was through, people were standing and cheering,” said Judy Wise, a Plant City Republican activist who recalled only polite applause for the other Senate candidates speaking that night.
After Wilcox spoke Tuesday, the Hillsborough Republican Executive Committee held an unofficial straw poll for the Senate primary. In Jolly’s backyard, 59 people voted for Wilcox, 14 for Lopez-Cantera, five for DeSantis and none for Rep. Jolly or Beruff. A week earlier, Wilcox and DeSantis spoke to Brevard County Republicans, who held their own straw poll. Despite both Republicans sharing similar tea party conservative views, Wilcox won 128 votes, Lopez-Cantera 36, DeSantis 35, Beruff three and Jolly two.
“I think it’s because this is the year of the outsider. He’s not a politician,” Wise said of the enthusiasm for Wilcox among conservative activists. “He is the whole package.”
Wilcox grew up in Tampa, one of six kids raised by a single mother. He graduated from Robinson High School, earned an ROTC scholarship to the University of Tampa, and graduated in 1989 as the Soviet Union was collapsing. He was commissioned as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army, served as a rifle platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division during Operation Desert Storm and, after making captain, transferred to Special Forces, earning his Green Beret.
He commanded a counterterrorism A-Team in East Asia but in 1997 left the Army to join the CIA. He moved to the Middle East shortly before Sept. 11, 2001, and saw combat again as a paramilitary CIA officer in Iraq. He finished his CIA career in 2006 on the Joint Terrorism Task Force in the FBI field office in Orlando, and then moved to the private sector.
Wilcox founded Patriot Defense Group, which provides specialized and often classified training to the military and intelligence services, as well as a corporate private investigative service, and Innovative Logistics, a firm that provides transportation, food, mail, fuel and other logistics services in dangerous areas such as Afghanistan and Libya.
Wilcox has three daughters, ages 23, 19 and 7, and he has been married since 2005 to Christine, a former CIA officer, his third wife. He estimates his net worth at more than $50 million.
The core of his campaign message is much like Trump’s: Politicians are on the verge of destroying America.
He kicked off his remarks in Tampa noting that the Declaration of Independence says that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.
“Well, I for one am withdrawing my consent,” Wilcox declared.
“Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. I’m a candidate for the United States Senate because I aim to alter our current form of government that is dominated by career politicians and political insiders.”
His campaign website details a platform that calls for launching an “all-out assault” on ISIS, including leading a coalition of forces to occupy ISIS-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq and deploying forces to Iraq.
Closer to home, Wilcox would strip pensions from members of Congress, “force them electronically to read every bill” and enact a lifetime ban on lobbying for former members. He also supports 12-year term limits and abolishing several government agencies including the EPA and Department of Education.
Beruff, who entered the race in late February, has spent more than $1.5 million in recent weeks on TV ads touting himself as a successful political outsider.
“I think, probably unlike Carlos Beruff, that you should earn the seat. I don’t think it should be for sale,” Wilcox said when asked how much of his own money he expects to spend on his campaign. He added, “I’ll do whatever it takes to win the seat in terms of the investment.”
He dismissed his primary opponents as political insiders sure to lose to U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Palm Beach County, whom Wilcox expects to be the Democratic nominee.
“It’s ironic that they keep painting themselves as outsiders, even Beruff,” Wilcox said. “It’s three sitting politicians — all young in their careers and yet still career politicians — and a political insider who’s been donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates on both sides of the aisle and reaping the benefits of appointments that help him and his crony capitalist buddies down in Sarasota.”
A Beruff spokesman brushed off opponents “slinging mud” as evidence rivals are afraid of him.
Wilcox also casually brushed off Jolly as too moderate and scoffed at the Pinellas Republican’s “Stop Act” proposal barring federal politicians from asking for campaign donations and criticized how Scientologists support a Jolly veterans health care bill.
“He has these smokescreen proposals. The Stop Act, that’s just his excuse for not raising any money,” Wilcox said.
Said Jolly spokeswoman Sarah Bascom: “Todd’s just a listless candidate looking to find his way. Rep. Jolly has no intention of responding to his continued whining.”
Conventional candidates like Jolly may soon find it hard to ignore the $50 million outsider who sounds nothing like a predictable politician.
“I have led men in combat,” Wilcox told a Republican gathering in Tampa last year. “I have faced our enemy — and sent some of them to their maker.”
Times/Herald staff writer Michael Auslen contributed to this report.
Contactasmith@tampabay.com. Follow @AdamSmithTimes.