How a Missouri Senate candidate went from anti-Trump libertarian to MAGA Republican

  • Austin Petersen is running for Senate in Missouri on the Republican ticket.
  • He was formerly a Libertarian presidential candidate in 2016.
  • The incumbent is Sen. Claire McCaskill, a moderate Democrat.

The Republican Party is the way forward for Austin Petersen, a longtime Libertarian now running for the GOP nomination in Missouri’s high profile 2018 Senate race.

Petersen has worn many hats over the past decade. He was a producer for the Fox News show hosted by Andrew Napolitano, a judge and legal analyst who has promoted 9/11 conspiracy theories and Civil War revisionism. He founded The Libertarian Republic, a website that primarily aggregates the news of the day into packages appealing to a libertarian audience. In 2016, Petersen campaigned for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination, falling short to former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

Now the Missouri native has switched to the Republican Party and is making a long-shot bid in his home state to unseat incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat.

“My policies are the same but the time to fight is when you’re at your darkest hour,” Petersen said in a telephone interview with Business Insider. “If the wolves are at the gate. That is the time when you need to step up and man up and make a tough decision — and it was not an easy decision — It was not.”

Now that he has changed parties, Petersen is taking a distinctly pro-Donald Trump tone, even tweeting in the same exclamatory style as the president.

“I was the only LP POTUS who said nice things about Trump last year, to explain why he was a strong candidate,” Petersen wrote on Twitter. “Many scoffed. Bad!”

But during the 2016 campaign, Petersen highly criticised then-candidate Trump, calling him more of a socialist compared to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and tweeting that his supporters were “losers.”

Petersen said it was entirely natural to be concerned about Trump before Election Day and that ignoring his victory would be unwise going forward.

“I think if you weren’t sceptical of Trump before the election, you might be a little naive, but if you afterward you still remain ‘Never Trump,’ I think you’re trying to ignore what happened last year,” he said.

Petersen added that there are many areas in which he and Trump overlap on policy positions, such as tax reform and health care. On foreign policy, Petersen suggested Trump has strayed from his campaign platforms, but few lawmakers have been trying to resurrect those promises.

“Donald Trump ran as a dove and I think that he should stick to those principles,” he said. “Rand Paul has held him to that account.”

One area in which Petersen breaks with Trump very specifically is the issue of “the wall,” which the president has long promised to build along the entire US-Mexico border to stem the tide of undocumented immigrants and drugs entering the country.

“I think that the problem of what they’re really asking is do you wanna support a massive FDR-style infrastructure project so we can raise spending, raise taxes, and steal land from Republicans in Texas — no I don’t,” Petersen said, referring to former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “But do I want legal immigration? Yes I do. The president wants legal immigration and so do I.”

Petersen is adamant about maintaining an outsider profile in contrast to McCaskill and his GOP primary opponent, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.

“Claire McCaskill, she’s very good at painting herself as a moderate, but when you look at her voting record, she’s very much a party-line Democrat,” he said. “So I think that if we just run against her record as it has been, she voted to take away our guns, she voted for an assault weapons ban. So I think I would contend that she’s not a moderate, she just tries to pretend that she is.”

Petersen says that his travels throughout the state to campaign on a local level reveal voters’ discontent with Hawley’s candidacy.

“They’re not thrilled that he’s already jumping ship to run for higher office because that’s exactly what he campaigned against and what he promised he wouldn’t do, be a ladder-climbing career politician,” Petersen said, noting a JTD strategies poll that found half of Missouri voters think Hawley could be using his attorney general career as a stepping stone to higher office.

And while Petersen’s campaign is employing a handful of traditional tactics, he has gotten into a bit of controversy. Facebook recently blocked his personal profile after he attempted to give away a free AR-15 rifle as a campaign promotion.

“It’s difficult to ignore that this action comes during a period of heightened tension regarding Facebook’s role in our elections, and its perceived bias against conservative voices,” Petersen wrote in an open letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “Moreover, the fact that your Chief Operating Officer — Sheryl Sandberg — has ‘leaned into’ my election by donating the maximum allowable amount to my opponent does not inspire confidence in Facebook’s neutrality.”

Petersen then expanded his digital footprint by joining Gab, a fringe social media platform popular with white nationalists and those who identify with the alt-right. On his Gab profile, Petersen cited Facebook’s decision to block his AR-15 giveaway for why he joined the website.

Nevertheless, Petersen thinks his unique style and grassroots campaign are an advantage in an upcoming election cycle that has already seen incumbents ousted, such Roy Moore’s upset over Luther Strange in the primary for Alabama’s special Senate election. However, Petersen acknowledges that not all outsiders produce a winning recipe and that the key is broad appeal, which he said he has.

“The problem we had in Missouri last time was we had that candidate Todd Aiken and Claire McCaskill helped him win because she knew she could beat him,” he said. “I’m a different kind of Republican and I think I would have crossover appeal because I think that independents and Libertarians and Republicans will vote for me and that would be enough to beat Claire on its face, but even Democrats like me.”

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