Unlike the protagonist in the Jimmy Stewart movie, Austin Petersen isn’t entirely innocent when it comes to politics. In fact, you could say he’s been angling for office for quite a while now, an opinion even more apparent since he announced he was going to challenge Democrat Claire McCaskill for her Senate seat in 2018.
But for those who aren’t entirely familiar with this former actor turned Libertarian activist, let me introduce you to the man who could permanently change Washington in ways Donald Trump never could.
Born in 1981, Petersen has played a pivotal role in libertarian politics since the early 2000s and has even developed something of a feud with his former boss, libertarian-Republican stalwart Ron Paul, which placed him in the middle of a fight over classical liberalism in the United States.
Even though Petersen originally studied musical theatre at Missouri State, his interest and activism in the libertarian movement led him to run in his party’s primaries for the presidency in 2016. He ended up losing on the second ballot to Gary Johnson, but that didn’t quench his thirst for public office. So, on July 4th, 2017, Petersen announced his bid for the US Senate, but as a Republican.
The decision shocked many of his supporters. However, Petersen’s large connections to media outlets such as Reason, Libertarian Republic (which he started), and Fox News was most likely a factor in the largely positive coverage he received.
Another big part of this good reception, in an otherwise difficult situation where you’re trying to sell leaving your own party, is probably the interesting way Petersen is presenting himself.
Despite the rising tide of populism, libertarian-Republicans and self-proclaimed Constitutionalists such as Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Ron Johnson are gaining leverage in the Senate. Petersen is currently following the same strategy himself.
These new Republicans have actually been around for a while, predating the MAGA movement and even in some cases the Evangelical surge during the Obama era. They represent a fresh dedication to economic conservatism, and in some cases even partially abandoning strong social positions.
In an interview with Reason Magazine’s Nick Gillespie, Petersen said many of these things himself.
“It’d be good to have a more Libertarian Republican in her place to vote on the issues that we are about,” Peterson said while discussing why he was better suited for the Senate than his potential Democratic opponent, Claire McCaskill.
Peterson’s presence in the Senate could lend a hand to this relatively small block of Republicans, and with battles over tax reform and healthcare still being hammered out, it’s very possible Petersen could help shift the balance of an extremely important war for the soul of the GOP.
The most important question is, Can this former Libertarian take his seat among the lions of the Senate?
Despite the fact that he could possibly get some high level endorsements and help from the aforementioned legislators, Petersen has a tough electoral mountain to climb.
He faces a potential primary field filled with strong Republican candidates like state attorney general Josh Hawley, who’s much more likely to receive help from the state party. Even though Peterson has a bigger profile nationally than probably any of his future foes in the GOP primary, that doesn’t necessary mean Republicans will be so accepting.
Even if he somehow managed to win the nomination, Missouri, despite being a tossup state, has a true conservative base that could view Petersen’s libertarian stances on social issues in a negative light.
Whoever the victor ends up being, the real enemy at the end of the day will be the wily Claire McCaskill, a rising star within the Democrat party. McCaskill, unlike other noticeable Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Tulsi Gabbard, is known more for her moderate positions and ability to be dependable than her progressive record.
McCaskill first gained fame in 2006 when she beat Republican incumbent James Talent in her run for the Senate with a margin of 49.6% to 47.3%. She was the first ever female senator from her state, one of only 3 Democrats to hold that seat since 1953, and was one of the first senators to endorse Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, a series of record breaking feats that were topped off by perhaps her greatest asset: shrewd political skills.
When you’re a Democrat that represents a state that has a past of going red on the national level, you develop a pair of very sharp political claws.
McCaskill truly showed off her effectiveness at shredding an opponent when she first defended her seat in 2012. Perhaps it was more Todd Akin’s own quotes (“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”) that sabotaged his challenge, but McCaskill’s ability to use his words against him saved her from being poached by the GOP. She trounced Akin with 54.7% of the vote, surviving a red wave that gave Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney that same year the state with 53.9% of the vote.
Despite running against someone who could be considered the smartest Democrat in the Senate, Petersen might be able to ride his way to victory by energizing the Trump voter base. The former businessman from New York won the state during the 2016 presidential race by almost 20%, a landslide victory.
However, in order for this strategy to work, it would mean Petersen would have to stray a little from his libertarian roots. But since he’s already left his own party to have a shot at victory, it seems the former Fox News producer might do just about anything to win it. Or, perhaps in this case, trump it.
Featured image: Wikipedia
* Caleb Mills is an analyst, journalist, and political strategist from the American Midwest.