Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series on the Republican U.S. Senate candidates.
EAST HELENA — At a Republican Party dinner here last month, the only U.S. Senate candidate to appear in person — Champ Edmunds — didn’t surprise anyone when he said wants a full repeal of Obamacare.
But what about a plan for replacing it? No need for that, either, he says.
“That question assumes that conservatives need to come up with their own government program,” he tells the crowd at the Jefferson County Republican Central Committee dinner. “We need to get the government out of the health care business, out of the insurance-writing business.”
Edmunds’ blunt talk essentially frames his candidacy, as he likes to say he’s the “true conservative” in Montana’s crowded race this year for the U.S. Senate.
He’s also been campaigning for the seat longer than anyone in the contest, jumping in 14 months ago, before then-incumbent Sen. Max Baucus announced he wouldn’t run for re-election this year.
At dozens of local GOP dinners across the state, Edmunds has staked out his conservative, Libertarian-leaning approach, saying he’d vote to abolish the departments of Energy and Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, which he says stands in the way of responsible natural resource development.
Yet Edmunds, a two-term state representative from Missoula, finds himself as a distinct underdog in the three-way Republican primary, where U.S. Rep. Steve Daines is the heavy favorite to advance.
The winner of the June 3 Republican primary will take on the winner of a three-way Democratic primary, among Sen. John Walsh, former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams.
Edmunds and the third Republican, political unknown Susan Cundiff, of Missoula, have raised a few thousand dollars for their campaigns. Daines has raked in $3.6 million, and had $2.2 million in the bank as of March 31.
Still, Edmunds says he believes he has a chance — and has been telling fellow Republicans for months that Daines is not the conservative he says he is.
He notes that Daines voted in April 2013 for a bill allowing businesses and law enforcement to share personal information on citizens, to combat “cyber-terrorism,” has voted several times to raise the federal debt ceiling and voted last October to end the federal government shutdown and fund Obama’s health-care overhaul.
“Those are the kinds of votes that made me stay in the race,” Edmunds said in a recent interview. “My goal has always been to get a solid conservative who can join the Ted Cruzes and Rand Pauls (of the Senate) and get things done.”
Edmunds, 50, grew up in South Carolina and spent 10 years in the Navy, mostly as a submariner on nuclear submarines, stationed in Japan, Hawaii and Washington state.
Edmunds moved in 1997 to Missoula, where he went to college and raised his son and daughter as a single parent.
He earned a degree in business, accounting and finance from the University of Montana and worked as mortgage loan officer at several mortgage firms and banks in Missoula.
“I just always wanted to live in a Western state,” he says. “I was tired of the big-city life.”
Edmunds, who speaks with a gentle southern drawl, also doesn’t shy from talking about his unusual face, which features a permanently turned-down corner of his mouth.
A birth injury caused part of his face to be paralyzed, and Edmunds says while “half my face doesn’t work, I can assure you all of my brain does.”
“While I may not be the prettiest candidate, I am the most electable conservative,” he says in a video produced for his website.
As a state representative from Missoula, Edmunds has worked to reform state workers’ compensation laws, served on the House Appropriations Committee and sponsored a pair of laws on veterans’ issues: One allowing vets to get a state commercial drivers’ license if they had one in the military, and another designating an Iraq-Afghanistan veterans’ memorial in Missoula.
On the campaign trail, Edmunds says he’s the candidate who stands for “individual liberties and freedom,” and that in the America he envisions, people will be “free to create, free to innovate, free to invest and free to grow the economy once again.”
Since Edmunds’ campaign doesn’t have a lot of money, he says he’s hoping a “grass-roots effort” of people talking to people can help him be a contender in the June 3 primary.
“People who are paying attention will vote for me,” he says. “The problem is, how many people are paying attention? Hopefully, a lot.”