Libertarian congressional candidate Mark Wicks and a few supporters had been standing around a Whitefish parking lot for more than half an hour before the first contestant rolled up. Wicks, a rancher and mailman from Inverness, was hosting an "ugly truck" competition outside the Firebrand Hotel in an attempt to capitalize on the rare bit of attention the political newcomer had mustered. During the only televised debate between special election candidates, on April 29, Wicks had delivered a zinger comparing his opponents to vehicles—Gianforte a "country club" sedan, Quist a half-ton pickup with nice speakers but little torque—while branding himself the "work truck." In Whitefish, he had "Send the Work Truck" T-shirts for sale and a campaign stunt that managed to draw as many reporters (three) as actual trucks.
That was enough to attract Don Anderson, a Libertarian who lives down the street, and his 150-pound Newfie, Shadow. Anderson didn't know much about Wicks, but said that the "basic statements" he'd heard, like eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, are "so consistent with the Libertarian philosophy."
State Libertarian party stalwarts are less sure about Wicks. Behind the scenes, his unconventional campaign and sometimes confusing platform is roiling Montana's only recognized third party, exacerbating a power struggle that's emerged in the absence of former standard-bearer Mike Fellows, who died while campaigning last September. The wheels fell off May 8, when party chair Ron Vandevender resigned during the homestretch of the party's first major race since Fellows' death.
"I'm not real fond of his ideas," Vandevender says of Wicks. "I don't think he's hard libertarian. I think he's more in line with this, 'I got to do what I got to do to get a vote.'"
Under Fellows, the Libertarian party and its agenda of personal freedom and limited government became a consistent, if minor, factor in state politics. Fellows ran for office every cycle for 20 years, including five bids for the U.S. House. Wicks is new to libertarian politics, but he possesses many of the personality quirks that typically signify a true believer. He named his youngest daughter Liberty. In 2012, he self-published a post-apocalyptic novel about a Montana ranching family titled Wrath of the Dodo. (A prefatory author's note warns that "a lot of the government policies and standard operating practices in this country need to change before we find ourselves living in a third world country.")
Protests in the wake of Donald Trump's election as president convinced Wicks the country needs "calmer heads," like his, to help it get back on track. He describes his philosophy as "libertarian mixed with common sense." He credits his rural lifestyle with allowing that philosophy to take form.
- photo by Derek Brouwer
- Mark Wicks, left, talks to a supporter about his run as the Libertarian candidate for Congress during an “ugly truck” campaign event May 13 in Whitefish. The special election is May 25.
"If you're farming, you're going around in circles, so it gives you a lot of time to think," he says.
The resulting platform can be difficult for some of his harder-line libertarian peers to parse. Wicks supports federal subsidies for wind energy, and he also supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He touts faith-based private health cooperatives, while maintaining that the federal government should regulate prescription drug prices. He's expressed support for intervention in Syria and for building a border wall.
"Honestly, and a lot of libertarians feel the same way ... Mark doesn't represent all the libertarian values," says party member Joe Paschal, of Townsend. "He's sort of a Republican, alt-right kind of guy."
Wicks earned the nomination in March at the party's first-ever state convention, beating Paschal in the last round of voting. As a way to begin rebuilding the party without Fellows, Vandevender says, he tried to make the convention inclusive by allowing county committees to seat delegates, even if they hadn't filed the requisite elections paperwork. Doing so, he says now, may have been a mistake. Wicks won on a 9-7 vote. Wicks' son was one of the delegates, party communications director Michael Fucci confirms.
Wicks has campaigned on his own, without a manager, between mail delivery routes and while traveling for his daughter's sports tournaments. His campaign has raised $2,030—all in individual contributions—as of May 5, Federal Election Commission records show. Wicks hasn't had the benefit of a party mailing list, which he says is one of the items tied up in legal issues surrounding Fellows' death—or of state party money, of which Vandevender says there is none. In their stead, Wicks is trying to harness social media to generate momentum from his public debut on the debate stage in late April.
Among his supporters is former Bozeman mayor Jeff Krauss, who was mingling in the Whitefish parking lot after speaking at the Flathead County Libertarian Party's "Liberty Think Bash" the night before. As he told the Indy of his support for Wicks, a local party official asked if the campaign had publicized the endorsement. It hasn't, but an endorsement from Vandevender is spotlighted on Wicks' campaign site. It may need some revision.
"I'm looking at my ballot on the table," Vandevender says. "I'm going to do a write-in, or I'm going to burn it."