Flathead rancher and clinical laboratory scientist Mark French munches a lukewarm $3 cheeseburger outside the Adams Center Field House, pausing occasionally from a run-down of his primary race against Rep. Denny Rehberg to greet the steady stream of conservatives heading into the 2010 Liberty Convention. He meets their praise of his bold attempt at disrupting the Republican Party ticket with humble waves, but their confidence seems to strengthen French's faith in his chances at ousting the five-term incumbent.
It's Rehberg's "lack of passion for freedom," French explains, that prompted his sudden bid for candidacy in February. To French, running for Montana's sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives isn't so much a realization of personal political ambition as it is a solemn duty, one passed down from a higher power.
"Frankly, I believe that the Bible is true and I get a lot of my direction from the scriptures," French says. "By time and prayer and talking to other people, it was clear to me that I was to take this step. It was more of a step of obedience...It's quite the mountain, the obstacle of incumbency."
But if the Liberty Convention is any indication of French's odds—he considers western Montana's far-right voters his key to victory—then the self-proclaimed "Constitutional Republican" may be disappointed come June 8. Organizers of the event, hosted by Hamilton's Celebrating Conservatism, planned for some 5,000 attendees. The actual turnout was closer to 250.
Members of the Tea Party's anti-incumbency lean generated a few upsets nationwide in recent midterm elections, most notably Rand Paul's victory over Trey Grayson in Kentucky's U.S. Senate Republican race. Those disgruntled conservatives looking to pull the GOP further to the right are living up to months-old predictions by throwing party races an unprecedented curveball, a reality Montana's Republican Party stubbornly maintains is a positive development.
"I know people are out there saying, 'It's a sign that there's division in the Republican camp,'" says Montana GOP Executive Director Bowen Greenwood, "but what I see is a whole slew of people who can't wait to run, and that can only be good for us."
The sudden interest in Rehberg's congressional seat is certainly a new development. In his first primary since being elected to office in 2000, Rehberg faces not one opponent but two—French and MSU-Billings marketing professor A. J. Otjen. And to French, there's only one obvious winner.
"I believe in miracles," French says. "We started campaigning, knocking on doors, and since then people have been really feeding us energy."
Unexpected voices of support for the French campaign came this month from county GOP leaders in the Flathead. Lake County Republican Central Committee Chairman Brent Matson announced his personal endorsement of French on May 20—just one day after his Flathead County counterpart Ava Walters publicly backed the Constitutional Republican.
"Sometimes you have to look at candidates as to whether they're going to continue on or not and if they've still got the passion and the zeal to do their job," Matson says. "In this particular case, I feel Mark French is the one to do that."
As welcome as those Republican votes of confidence are, French appears more morally bolstered by endorsements from the Constitution Party realm. He won the support May 19 of Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff and fervent states' rights activist who has made three appearances before Celebrating Conservatism—including an evening speech at the Liberty Convention. French displays Mack's endorsement like a badge of honor.
"If I was to pick what I believe are the most important races, I'd pick the sheriff's races," French says, echoing Mack's widely espoused beliefs. "We have out-of-control federal government, and I think people need to be really careful and secure their own region, their own county first. We can try to change the federal government, but that's a huge monster."
For a congressional hopeful, French comes off a bit extreme in his rhetoric-heavy defense of "God-given rights." He condemns U.S. participation in the United Nations, rankles against the Federal Reserve and the "cotton-picking" federal government, and accuses the Republican Party of abandoning its platform.
"Freedom's dangerous," French says. "I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said, 'Every now and then the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.' Freedom is an aberration in our world, and by definition freedom comes from bloodshed."
French comes off as a sort of poster boy for the ideals that have earned Celebrating Conservatism and its sister groups in Montana considerable criticism from the left.
"People kind of choke on the fact that I'm running as a Republican, and yes, I am," French says. "But you have to get in a vehicle...You have to use one of the parties if you're really going to have any chance of winning."
Waving the GOP banner may sound like a compromise for a clear-cut Constitutionalist. It's logistical, French says. Victory is merely the first step in bringing his newly adopted party in step with those conservatives insistent on principle over political negotiation.
"Are you going to stay in this good-old-boy network, or are you going to stand on principle?" French asks. "If I win this thing, there's going to be a huge shift in the mentality of the Republican Party and politics in general in Montana...it's going to be interesting to watch it take place."
That critical "if" aside, it most certainly will.