State Politics

Wilcox drops out, leaving Rubio, Beruff as primary Senate opponents

Florida Senate candidate Todd Wilcox speaks to members and guests of the Plant City Republican Women Federated Women's Club meeting at Uncle Mike's Smokehouse in Plant City on April 21. Wilcox ended his campaign Friday.
Florida Senate candidate Todd Wilcox speaks to members and guests of the Plant City Republican Women Federated Women's Club meeting at Uncle Mike's Smokehouse in Plant City on April 21. Wilcox ended his campaign Friday. Tampa Bay Times

The story is familiar: A brash, self-styled “outsider” with deep pockets challenges Marco Rubio on his home turf.

Three months ago, it was Donald Trump, who beat the Republican senator in Florida’s presidential primary everywhere but his home county of Miami-Dade.

Now Carlos Beruff, a Manatee County developer and millionaire political donor, is hoping to do the same in the race for U.S. Senate.

On Friday morning, Beruff became the only major candidate who will challenge Rubio in the Aug. 30 Republican primary. Todd Wilcox, an ex-CIA officer and defense contractor from Orlando, dropped out of the race and endorsed Rubio.

“Senator Rubio and I don’t agree on everything,” Wilcox said in a statement. “We’ve traveled different paths, but I respect his grasp of the challenges we face and I appreciate the reality that he, as the incumbent, is best positioned to defeat either Patrick Murphy or Alan Grayson in November.”

Wilcox entered the race last summer, sensing an opportunity after Rubio said he would not seek re-election. As recently as Wednesday, Wilcox planned to stay in the race and called Rubio “yet another career politician.”

Until this week, there was no clear favorite in the Republican primary, giving first-time candidates like Wilcox a rare shot at a Senate seat. But Rubio’s decision to seek re-election changed the odds for a once-crowded field of Republicans.

U.S. Rep. David Jolly dropped out before Rubio announced. U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera followed afterward.

In a statement Friday, Beruff made it clear that he intends to remain in the race, saying “the choice is clear.”

“We are going to continue delivering our message far and wide, and I certainly believe that people are tired of the career politicians,” he told the Herald/Times. “It’ll be easier to focus now.”

Rubio’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

This is Beruff’s first election, but he’s been a major donor to Republicans for years and campaign finance records show that he has never been a big fan of Rubio’s.

Since 2002, Beruff and his business holdings have made more than 730 campaign donations to support 103 political candidates totaling over $1 million.

They include checks to former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, who held the seat before Rubio, Charlie Crist when he was still a Republican while running for the Senate in 2009, and the failed Senate campaigns of Connie Mack IV in 2012 and Katherine Harris in 2006. Beruff even gave the maximum donation to Mike Haridopolos, the former Florida Senate president, who briefly ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012, before quitting the race.

Beruff has never given to Rubio.

Instead, Beruff has promised to spend up to $20 million of his own money to win a primary against him.

Rubio will kick off his Senate fundraising Sunday in Coral Gables.

Early polling suggests the incumbent senator has little reason to worry. The Republican-aligned Senate Leadership Fund found Rubio with a dominant lead over Wilcox and Beruff in a primary matchup polled early this week.

Republican leaders urged Rubio to run, and a new, pro-Rubio super PAC is already churning out general election attacks on U.S. Rep. Murphy, D-Jupiter.

But in a year like this one — with Rubio fresh off a presidential primary loss — Beruff sees a path to a Trump-style upset.

“I don’t think there’s much to overcome,” Beruff said. “He’s also one of the most widely known, failed senators in the Congress.”

Beruff thinks he could build a following in Tampa Bay, which represents nearly a quarter of Florida’s Republican primary voters.

“All I know is that our polls show we are strong in that corridor,” he said Wednesday. “I can tell you I’ll be in Pinellas county a lot. And Hillsborough County and Pasco County.”

Two additional candidates — Ernie Rivera, a Land O’Lakes minister, and Dwight Young, a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy — will appear on the GOP ballot in theAug. 30 primary, but neither has raised significant donations or garnered much public attention.

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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