When it comes to the world of politics, Dan Cox isn’t a fan of the status quo.
It’s a point that’s very much on display at his home on the northern outskirts of Hamilton.
A few steps from Cox’s backdoor is the red, white and blue plywood float that Ravalli County’s Libertarians pulled in this year’s Memorial Day parade.
Big red letters etched on its side say “Restore Liberty.” In front of those words are two cutouts of the Statue of Liberty.
As members marched, a machine puffed smoke up and around Liberty’s head. The Libertarians wanted parade watchers to know they believe this country is headed down the wrong path.
That’s a message Cox hopes to bring to a statewide stage as the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate.
He knows that’s not going to be an easy task.
That point was driven home recently when Rep. Denny Rehberg pulled out of a Montana Broadcasters Association-sponsored debate at the last minute.
Cox had hoped the debate, scheduled to be televised statewide, would be a springboard for him to spread his message that this country’s two-party system is flawed.
“The way I see it, the most important thing for me is to get into the debate to try to challenge the status quo,” Cox said. “I want to inject liberty into the conversation. I can’t do that from the sidelines.”
“Of course, my ultimate goal is to win,” he said.
Sitting at his kitchen table on a recent morning, Cox acknowledged his competitors – incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican challenger Rehberg – have all the advantages. In a race with national implications, supporters of the two mainstream candidates are spending millions to make sure their message gets out.
Cox’s political war chest is nearly empty. He’s has no plans for any kind of expensive media blitz. He does plan to recycle signs from his last failed state Senate race in an effort to get some name recognition going.
“I won’t have to alter them much to make them work,” he said.
Cox is counting on a loose-knit group of supporters discouraged with the two-party system and his celebrity as someone who took on the system and won to get his name and platform known.
Cox is credited with leading the charge to repeal Ravalli County’s growth policy and the subsequent end of an effort to impose zoning restrictions in the county.
That was his first real exposure to the political process. It left him feeling discouraged.
“I thought it was going to be easy,” he said. “I’d go to the Republican Party, whose platform included property rights, and they would help out.”
When it didn’t work that way, Cox decided to get involved. He became the chair of the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee. At the party’s state convention, Cox said he challenged mainstream members of the Republican Party over the formation of a committee he believed would usurp the power of the counties.
“I didn’t make it on the next rules committee,” he said.
That experience – coupled with an earlier “infiltration” into Ravalli County-based Friends of the Bitterroot group – helped Cox decide to turn his back on the traditional parties.
“Republicans and Democrats basically vote the same,” he said. “Their rhetoric is just different. As the country gets more in debt, people are starting to listen to my message and others like me.”
He found those like-minded people in the state’s growing Libertarian movement.
“Instead of fighting with people while pretending to do the right thing, they are just being people who want to do the right thing,” Cox said. “There is not a bunch of infighting. For us, it’s about principle. It’s not about party.”
Cox is a relative newcomer in the world of politics. His parents weren’t overly active in government, although his father did run for the Utah Legislature years after he left home.
“He started out as a Democrat and then became a RINO (Republican in name only) Republican,” Cox said. “I discovered my viewpoints on my own. They definitely did not come from my parents.”
Cox operates a web-based business that sells fishing lures from his home. Before a divorce, he said he was the main push to begin the thriving Halo Heaven in Conner that sells a variety of children’s costume items on the Internet. His ex-wife now operates that business.
Cox said his campaign is based on the principles found in the U.S. Constitution.
“I can’t go along with policies that compromise the principles that this country is based on,” he said. “Why would I compromise those rights that people have fought and died to maintain? How hard is it for me to show up for a few meetings or throw my name in the hat as a candidate?”
People choose their political party often based on perceptions, Cox said.
For example, he said President Ronald Reagan is considered by many in the Republican Party to be the great conservative.
But, during his tenure, the national debt increased by 189 percent and there were 17 debt ceiling increases under Reagan, Cox said.
“He outspent Obama by a long shot and yet somehow he’s considered a conservative,” Cox said.
Initially encouraged by the values that the fledgling Tea Party brought to the forefront, Cox has been disappointed in its inability to get candidates elected and its shift toward more traditional Republican platforms.
“The Tea Party has done a great deal as far as educating the public about constitutional beliefs and values,” he said. “At the end of the day, establishment Republicans have overtaken the Tea Party and now we’re getting the same old line that our guy may not be very good, but he’s better than the Democrat.”
As this year’s election season heats up, Cox hopes that he’ll have the chance to show people that there’s another choice.
He doesn’t care how the debates unfold.
He just wants them to happen.
“I’ll debate Rehberg by myself. I’ll debate Tester by myself. I’ll debate both of them at the same time,” Cox said. “I don’t care. I just want to debate as often as I can.”
“It seems to me that it’s most important thing a candidate can do,” he said. “They need to show up to debate the issues so the people of Montana can make an informed decision at the ballot box.”
Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.