St. Louis Post-Dispatch: GOP Senate candidate Austin Petersen says he's the anti-establishment alternative for 2018

Austin Petersen, a former Libertarian presidential candidate turned Republican hopeful for the U.S. Senate, has a message for GOP officials in Missouri and Washington who are all but declaring Josh Hawley their nominee:

Not so fast.

“They don’t need just another Republican in the Senate to do Mitch McConnell’s bidding,” says Petersen, 36. “I’m here to give people a choice.”

A Kansas City resident and owner of the conservative news website The Libertarian Republic, Petersen sought the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination last year, coming in third place in the popular vote with a little more than 3,000 votes nationally, and second place in delegate voting at the party's national convention. About 850 of his popular votes came in Missouri, making him the top Libertarian primary vote-getter in his home state.

It’s a modest electoral résumé compared with Hawley, who won the office of Missouri Attorney General last year with about 1.6 million votes and now is being backed for the Senate nomination by the likes of Vice President Mike Pence and nationalist media executive Steve Bannon.

Hawley’s recent report of raising about $820,000 in campaign funds so far, with about $780,000 on hand as of last week, stands in daunting contrast to Petersen’s report: $214,000 raised, about $38,400 still on hand.

But Petersen notes that Donald Trump won the presidency last year despite being massively outspent by Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump also won the popular vote in Missouri by a wide margin, while establishment Republican Sen. Roy Blunt narrowly won re-election.

“Missouri voters are very anti-establishment right now,” says Petersen. “We’re giving the establishment a run for their money.”

Petersen said he made the decision to switch parties and run for the Senate as a Republican because he and his supporters believe it’s the best way to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. The winner of the August 2018 Missouri GOP Senate primary will probably face McCaskill, seeking her third Senate term in November.

Petersen’s key issues are mostly a familiar Republican/Trump list: Repeal of the Affordable Care Act, lower taxes — he wants a complete elimination of the income tax but said a more realistic goal would be a universal 15-percent flat tax — and generally “getting government off our backs.”

He breaks with Trump and the more conservative elements of the GOP on immigration, though.

“Some people, instead of turning America into a ‘shining city on a hill’ like [Ronald] Reagan wanted, they want to turn us into a fortress,” said Petersen. As for Trump’s goal of a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border: “What they’re really asking is, do I want a massive FDR-style public works program on the southern border. That doesn’t sound very conservative to me.”

Political bug bites

Petersen, who is single, was born in Independence, Mo., and reared on a horse farm in Peculiar, Mo. He majored in musical theater at Missouri State University and harbored “no plans to get into politics.”

After college, he said in a recent interview, he moved to New York City, working in the entertainment business, producing independent stage plays and “doing some modeling.”

The political bug bit in 2007, he said, when he watched the Republican presidential primary debates that year and was impressed by candidate Ron Paul, the Libertarian-Republican congressman from Texas.

“I was blown away by Congressman Paul’s conservatism,” says Petersen. He subsequently worked as an organizer for Paul’s campaign in New York, raising, he said, more $1 million.

Later, he moved to Washington to work for the Libertarian National Committee, followed by a stint at a free-market think tank, a director of production at conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks and an associate producer for the Fox Business Network show “Freedom Watch.”

By 2015 he was running his own website and edging toward a run for president as a Libertarian. He said he didn’t like the idea that the party’s presumptive nominee, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, “would be the representative for Libertarian ideas” in the 2016 race. “I thought the American people were looking for a third option, and I wanted to be that option.”

Petersen’s brightest moment in the spotlight during that campaign came at the 2016 Libertarian Presidential Convention in Florida. Petersen, a vocal gun-rights advocate, gave Johnson the gift of a replica of George Washington’s flintlock pistol. Johnson accepted the gift, then later threw it in a trash can, in view of some delegates. The incident exploded on conservative social media and news outlets, with Johnson ultimately issuing an apology.

More recently, in his current campaign for the Senate, Petersen was giving away an AR-15-style rifle as part of an online fundraising event, which prompted a temporary suspension of his Facebook page for reasons he said the company still hadn’t made clear.

“Every time I try to give away a gun, something bad happens,” he joked last week.

Other declared Republican Senate candidates include Tony Monetti, a retired Air Force pilot and assistant dean at the University of Central Missouri Aviation Department; and Courtland Sykes, a Navy veteran.

This article appeared in the October 16, 2017 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.