“I don’t spend my weekends at $1,000 cocktail parties with powerful people. I spend my weekends with my family going shooting on our farm and doing things that everyday, ordinary Americans do.”
On January 19th, Missouri Senate candidate Austin Petersen joined Merion West‘s Nate McNally to discuss the progress of his campaign, the evolution of his views on abortion, the current debate on surveillance, and his role as a political outsider.
When you last joined us at Merion West during the summer, you had announced your campaign to run for the Missouri Senate seat. How do you feel your campaign has fared since we last spoke?
Very well actually. I’ve never come under the assumption that I’d be the favorite of the establishment in this race, but we’ve gotten a lot of media. We’ve raised quite a bit of money, and we just listed on Fox News as one of the big power players in the race. We’ve still got plenty of times to get ourselves off the runway.
What makes you the best option for Missouri voters?
I think probably the biggest thing that was just revealed, as of yesterday, is that Claire McCaskill was the deciding vote to push forward FISA 702 [a section of the law that enables the government to collect data from companies regarding communication between foreign nationals and Americans].
What’s interesting about this is that Claire McCaskill kept the deciding in order to ensure there’d be no debate on this surveillance bill, which many people rightfully claim is an attack on our 4th amendment rights. So, comparing myself to the Democrat, I am much more in line with the constitutional principles I think Missouri should support.
What was also revealed was that my primary opponent, Josh Hawley, stated that he would have voted for [FISA 702] as well. So there’s not much of a difference in terms of respect for the Constitution between Claire McCaskill and my primary opponent. I actually tweeted at him, asking him if he could explain why Mike Lee and Rand Paul are wrong and why Claire McCaskill is right about the surveillance bill?
So I think that’s what makes me a different kind of Republican, and why I’m the best candidate.
And Mr. Hawley did not respond to your tweet? Does this convey a message to Missouri voters?
I think he’s going to do the best he can to make his stance known on as few controversial issues as possible. He is so beholden to his special interests that bankroll his campaign, he can’t appear to be making a stance because he’s tried to pull the typical politician and win the primary without making any public announcements. I think it’s cowardly. I think if he wants to be a leader and wants Missouri’s votes, then he should tell people where he stands on these issues.
I was actually flabbergasted that he took a stance on that issue, and it turns out he took the wrong side.
On the topic of Josh Hawley — at the earlier half of this month, the President and Steve Bannon, who was behind Josh Hawley, had a falling out. How has this affected your campaign in the month of January?
Well, I’ve always said my campaign isn’t a campaign about personality; it’s a campaign about principles. I actually got really good advice from St.Louis talk show host Jamie Allman at the beginning of the campaign. He said “don’t stick your finger in the wind. Just continue to be your own man.” So I think that’s what really differentiates me; I’m free to speak my mind and say what I like and what I believe. Josh Hawley is not free to do so because he was recruited for this race by Mitch McConnell specifically. So he has to do what the Senate Majority Leader wants him to do.
I think that it shows that I am a truly independent candidate who is focused on the best interest of Missouri and not the establishment. Whether the establishment is Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, or Mitch McConnell, it doesn’t matter to me because I’m standing for what I believe is right no matter who supports what.
Has running as a Republican shifted your delivery of your principles?
It really hasn’t. I have a stump speech, but most of the time I tweak it to talk about recent events that have happened on the trail. My campaign platform is exactly the same as when I ran as a Libertarian. Quite frankly, when I ran as a Libertarian, I got a lot of support from Republicans.
So it wasn’t that much of a change outside of the letter after my name. I still campaign on the same issues.
Earlier today, you were tweeting about your pro-life stance. You mentioned a particular conversation with Judge Napolitano that had a major impact on your view on the abortion issue. Would you mind informing our viewers exactly how that conversation went and why it affected you so significantly?
Judge Napolitano is a Catholic, and he and I have had a difference of opinion at the time a couple of years ago. Then we sat down, and we talked about the issue of life from multiple different perspectives. He explained to me his philosophical beliefs. He introduced me to what he calls the “consistent pro-life ethic,” which is a Catholic doctrine. Essentially, it means you should be pro-life in all forms, which means the death penalty — I was opposed to the death penalty as well at the time, but I didn’t see how I was being inconsistent when it came to the issue of abortion.
After many long discussions, he introduced me to the Catholic doctrines on this. I was utterly convinced I was being inconsistent and that I was wrong. I was also introduced to the secular reasonings against abortion. There are actually quite a few pro-life secularists. So I took these two major worldviews, and I realized that there is no life without liberty. And to have liberty, we must first have life. So five or six years ago, at the time, I changed my mind and became pro-life. And I have been so ever since.
Is there any secular philosophical idea that sticks with you most now, five or six years after the fact?
Well, there’s several. The question is, I think, is the unborn a human? Yes, it is. Then the question is: do all humans deserve the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? I think the answer is unquestionably yes.
When I think about this, I like to use this thought exercise. If scientists were to discover clusters of cells on mars, what’d they call it? Life. Why doesn’t that apply to the cluster of cells in the womb? I’ll tell you: it does. If you are pro-human, and you want human life to flourish, thrive and spread out into the universe, then you cannot take a dim view of humanity. You have to be pro-life in the sense that you have to want to advance life, and I think that abortion doesn’t serve our interest as a species.
There’s a particular Libertarian stance on organizations like Planned Parenthood that use taxpayer money. Do you feel the taxpayer, who may not agree with the abortion of an unborn child, should have to pay organizations such as Planned Parenthood?
Under no circumstances should the taxpayers be required to pay for abortions. I do not believe the government should be paying to fund Planned Parenthood.
Even before you changed your mind on the abortion issue, were you against public funding of organizations like Planned Parenthood?
Yes, I was.
Doing a complete 180 here, and talking more about your public persona and how it differs from the opposition. Just yesterday, I sat down in your Instagram live video and you were walking home just talking to the viewers. There’s not many politicians who do that today. How do you feel your message not only differs, but is better than politicians who may not be comfortable being as openly public as that?
The message that Donald Trump has shown is that there is a very strong anti-elite bias from the people. They felt like a man like Donald Trump was good enough for blue collar people and everyday people. There’s really nothing that remarkable about me because I’m just a regular American citizen, who is deeply passionate about my ideas and about serving my country.
I am a pretty regular person, I’m a very social person. I like to share my deep thoughts with my friends, my family, and my supporters online.
I think it’s just a good way to humanize yourself, right? To show you’re not an elite — I don’t spend my weekends at $1,000 cocktail parties with powerful people. I spend my weekends with my family going shooting on our farm, playing video games, or doing things that everyday ordinary Americans do. I’m not afraid to display that because I think it’s a good idea to show people where you come from. I come from very simple and humble roots. That’s who I am, and that’s who I’ll always be.
When talking about you being an everyday American citizen, it’s very well known that your opponent for the Republican nomination, Josh Hawley, has very deep pockets. How do you compete in raising money?
Maybe I can’t out-fundraise him, but I can out-maneuver him because he does have to work as the Attorney General of Missouri full-time. While he’s supposedly doing his job, I can spend time out in the field. So it’s basically a war of attrition in that I may have fewer resources, but I can actually do more of that face-to-face campaigning that actually wins elections. Elections are won with boots on the ground. Elections are from handshake to handshake, right?
Should you become a Senator, there are not many Senators in the Republican Party with Libertarian roots. Which current Senators will you best get along with, should you be elected?
I’ve always admired two Senators, and that’s Mike Lee and Rand Paul. I cannot remember a time that I looked at an issue that Mike Lee was proposing and felt that I disagreed with him. He strikes me as a true constitutional conservative. Not only does he stand for our economic liberties, but he also stands for our civil liberties as well.
Of course Rand Paul had that brave attempt to filibuster the bill yesterday, the FISA 702, and his filibuster over the issue of drones several years ago was most impressive. This shows me that he has that libertarian background that I identify with. So those two Senators strike me as the closest to my ideology, and the ones I most look forward to working with.
Have you ever spoken to either of them in a personal conversation?
I have, yes.
And would you mind telling our readers how those conversations panned out? Did you learn things about yourself or some things about the process? Did they give you any advice?
With Senator Rand Paul, it was just basic high level chit-chat. It was when I was working at Fox News. From time to time he would come into the studio for the show, and we’d talk a little bit about the political events of the day.
The conversations I remember the most were the ones I had with Senator Mike Lee. He was very capable of diving right into a deep policy discussion. It was very interesting seeing him do so. He wasn’t much for small talk; he loved to talk about policy. I remember specifically having conversations with Senator Lee on foreign policy. We talked about having reasonable cuts — I don’t want to say national defense because we don’t want to cut defense; we want to cut militarism.
We talked about the actual defense items we did need in the United States. We talked about Utah Class submarines, for example, and how the United States could use those if we ever had a kind of superpower struggle again. And we talked about how that was a legitimate use for national security. Then we talked about where we could actually make reasonable cuts that wouldn’t interfere with our national defense. Senator Lee was very open and forthcoming about those items. We had a very intense discussion about those things.
When you first got involved with politics, did you see yourself eventually running for a senate seat?
No, I did not foresee myself running for office, and I really didn’t want to because I was so very good at promoting other candidates. One of the reasons I decided to start campaigning for office was because I felt that the momentum of the Liberty movement had started to decline. There were very few good leaders, who were able to communicate the liberty message to the American people a way they found palatable — to communicate to them in a way that was easy to understand. When Ron Paul’s campaign was over, and he retired from congress, I saw very few; there are some very good liberty candidates out there, but they were few and far between.
One of the reasons I am campaigning is to change the momentum of the liberty movement.
I believe you talked about this with Dave Rubin. For our readers here, what exactly made you decide the Libertarian Party is no longer for you and that you should campaign as a Republican?
Remember that the Libertarian Party did reject me; they thought that Gary Johnson was a better representative of their ideas. This was my first thought that perhaps I did not fit into the Libertarian party. Then, of course, there was the old fashion campaign where I sat down for two months where I did seriously consider a run as a Libertarian in the beginning. I called all of my supporters that would send me their phone numbers and asked them all two questions.
One: should I run for Senate — 100% of them said yes. Then two: which party should I run under? 98% or more said I should run as a Republican because I’m pro-life, pro-liberty, pro-constitution, and they wanted to get rid of Claire McCaskill as badly as I did.
Last question. What message do you primarily want to get across to the people of Missouri?
That’s a good question. I would say that when it comes to defending our constitutional rights, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice one side of your rights for one political party or the other.
Liberty shouldn’t come in pieces. You should get the whole pie. You should defend your economic liberty and your civil liberty as well. You don’t have to sacrifice liberty for security; you should be able to defend all of your liberties all of the time. That’s the message I want people to take away from this.
It’s been a pleasure speaking with you today. Good luck with your campaign.