Chris Hunter has a theory on how he could become the first Democrat to break the Bilirakis family's Republican dynasty of 36 years and counting.
It's not so much his resume, which by itself makes supporters wonder how this race could even be close.
"Former FBI, former federal prosecutor in the Department of Justice, beautiful family, just a career of service and giving back,'' said Pinellas County Democratic Party Chair Susan McGrath.
"I don't know that we could have created a better candidate in a lab if we tried."
For Hunter, 45, it's more about an antidote he is offering to the current political turmoil and unprecedented chaos in Washington.
In his bid against Rep. Gus Bilirakis for Florida's 12th Congressional District, Hunter is convinced there are enough voters with the same unease he felt when he quit the Justice Department to run after two years of attacks on the rule of law, objective truth, the intelligence community, the free press.
"That has nothing to do with partisan politics, that has nothing to do with Republican, Democrat, NPA, Independent or anything else," said Hunter, of Trinity. "It's simply saying we're better as a country than this and we will send to Congress people who will chose right and will stand up against wrong."
If anybody can unseat Bilirakis — elected in 2006 after his father served 24 years in the seat — Hunter's supporters say it's him: the first-time candidate who applied to the FBI two weeks after 9/11, who worked counter terrorism and chased international fugitives, who prosecuted health care fraud with the Department of Justice in Tampa, shutting down multi-million dollar scammers.
But in a district that President Donald Trump won by 19 points two years ago, where Bilirakis has been re-elected five times without breaking a sweat, will any of that be enough in November?
The district, with a half-million registered voters between north Pinellas, Pasco and a sliver of Hillsborough counties, is about as red as a fire truck.
Pasco, the bulk of the district, has two distinct faces: business growth and affluence along the southern tier, where suburban sprawl is outpacing transportation infrastructure; and blight and homelessness in the aging western edge, which helped earn Pasco the distinction as ground zero in the state's opioid crisis.
Bilirakis, of Palm Harbor, was a 35-year-old lawyer specializing in elder law when he was elected to the Florida House in 1998. Michael Bilirakis ended two decades in Congress in 2005, and his son stepped up, besting his first Democratic opponent handily.
When the younger Bilirakis ran, voters saw almost no name change on the ballot: "Gus Michael Bilirakis."
Over the past 12 years, he's earned a reputation for prioritizing veterans and seniors and being seen on the ground.
"He works tirelessly to make sure we are taken care of," said Republican Party of Pasco Chair Randy Evans, a Coast Guard veteran. "It's like his slogan says, 'Gus is for us.'"
But while few say it publicly, there is a whispered opinion among some insiders that Bilirakis has never been a big hitter in Washington in terms of committee leadership or getting credit for legislative accomplishments, said former Pinellas County Republican congressman David Jolly.
It's an assessment Jolly said is unfair and disagrees with but nevertheless exists among some senior Republicans.
"I think for any Republican this cycle, and it's true of Gus, the best way to run is to run scared because no seat is safe right now," Jolly said. "Gus will always have my friendship and my support but voters have a choice to make in that district in November. He's got a race this cycle, no question."
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Two months before election, Bilirakis tries to tweak flawed opioid bill he backed
When the FBI academy's class of 2003 chose Hunter to give the commencement speech, he ended with a quote from President John F. Kennedy.
"With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."
Sitting on stage as Hunter spoke was then-FBI director Robert Mueller, now heading the special counsel investigation into possible coordination between Trump's presidential campaign and Russia.
Hunter grew up in Hershey, Penn., and lived on the campus of the Milton Hershey School for underprivileged kids and orphans, where his mother worked as a teacher and his father oversaw the grounds.
"That's the environment in which I was raised," Hunter said. "Every single person around me was someone who was there to serve in one way or another."
As an FBI agent, Hunter said he handled "investigations to counter national security threat activity from a foreign nation state" and was part of a counter terrorism squad that focused on intelligence gathering, declining to give further details.
As part of the FBI's international fugitive investigation task force, he searched for notorious organized crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger, who was later indicted for 19 murders in Boston.
He left the FBI to give his wife and now-four children more stability and began prosecuting economic crimes as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Miami in 2007. One of his first cases was the investigation of the heist at Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice, France. It ended with recovery of all four paintings and a takedown of organized crime figures spanning from France to Broward County.
He moved to the Department of Justice's office in Tampa in 2013 to prosecute Medicare and TRICARE fraud, where he would secure convictions of more than 30 defendants in schemes involving more than $160 million.
He shut down shady rehabilitation businesses, home health scams, corrupt doctors, compounding pharmacies and others using complex schemes to collect on fraudulent claims to the health care system.
"Meticulous in his thinking, as ethical as anyone I've ever dealt with on the prosecution side," said Tampa defense lawyer Rick Terrana, who represented Pilar Garcia Lorenzo, a Tampa home health operator found guilty in 2016 of collecting $2.5 million in fraudulent Medicare claims after Hunter's prosecution.
"I was impressed with him to the point that I still talk about him to people I share federal cases with."
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District 12 is 39.6 percent Republican, 30.6 Democrat and 28.8 percent No Party Affiliation, according to the most recent available report from the state Division of Elections.
There has not been any outside polling on the race, but the Cook Political Report rates the district solidly Republican.
A Hunter victory would depend on rallying enough apathetic Democrats and independents, but most importantly, Republicans willing to cross party lines in a year that Trump is "no question the elephant in the room," said Stephen C. Craig, who studies voter behavior as director of the Political Campaigning Program at the University of Florida.
Hunter has hit the administration for what he calls dangerous rhetoric, outright racism and misogyny, and undermining of American values.
He said the lack of accountability in Congress amounts to "Constitutional failure."
"It would be one thing if all of that was happening and our separate and coequal legislative branch of government was actually fulfilling its constitutional duty of serving as a check and balance," Hunter said. "But not only is it not doing that, it is actively complicit in it."
This goes back to Hunter's theory on District 12 — that despite its demographics, there is a shared desire for decency.
"We have to have people who have the ability to see that we are greater than self identified party registration, that we are better than what we have experienced in the last year and a half and have the desire to seek ways to unify around a set of enduring values that defy political labeling," he said.
Evans, the Pasco Republicans Chair, said supporting Trump is the group's top priority. And Bilirakis has done just that, voting 97.8 percent in line with Trump's positions, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.
While Hunter is behind in name recognition, he secured an endorsement from President Barack Obama, who has been selective about which races to comment on.
Also hurting his face time —Bilirakis has not accepted an offer from WFLA News Channel 8 to debate Hunter on air, a pairing Hunter has pushed for since early September.
Where Bilirakis has become known for veteran services, Hunter said his top advocacy would be the environment at a time when the state's ecosystem is in peril. He proposed having Congressional hearings in the 12th District on water security and sea level rise. He earned endorsements from Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters, while Bilirakis has received the lowest possible rating from the League for his votes on the environment.
Hunter has raised $465,627 as of Aug. 8, the most recent federal filing available, to fund his campaign that's been largely spread by mailers, digital advertising, nationwide phone banking, meet and greets, social media and events.
He hasn't so far matched Bilirakis' reach into TV, which is fueled by $1.4 million raised, about half of which has come from political action committees, according to federal filings.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Rep. Gus Bilirakis sends out press release inflating local support
If all this turns out to be for nothing, Hunter said he won't be running again. This was a calling, he said, similar to the one he felt when he applied to the FBI two weeks after 9/11.
"I'm not a politician, I'm not doing this to become one," Hunter said. "I'm offering to serve in a moment to help solve some problems and to lead during a time of Constitutional crisis. That's it. So there's a lot on the line in November."
Staff writer C.T. Bowen contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.