Running for Congress by Running Against Their Own Party

In Missouri and elsewhere, GOP candidates could decide the best path to office is criticizing their leaders.

Austin Petersen (center) speaks to delegates at the National Libertarian Party Convention in Orlando, Fla., in May 2016.
AP Photo/John Raoux
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
July 4, 2017, 7 p.m.

Wide­spread an­ger and frus­tra­tion among con­ser­vat­ives could give rise to an un­usu­al trend in the midterm elec­tions: can­did­ates for Con­gress—in­clud­ing Re­pub­lic­an ones—run­ning ex­pli­citly against Con­gress.

With the GOP in con­trol of the House and Sen­ate, cri­ti­cism from Demo­crat­ic hope­fuls is to be ex­pec­ted. But con­gres­sion­al poll num­bers are bad enough that even Re­pub­lic­ans may de­cide their best bet is at­tack­ing their own party and its lead­ers.

In Mis­souri, for ex­ample, little-known Sen­ate hope­ful Aus­tin Petersen launched his cam­paign over the Fourth of Ju­ly hol­i­day rail­ing against GOP lead­er­ship, which he says hasn’t done enough to help en­act the agenda of Pres­id­ent Trump, who won the state by 19 points last Novem­ber.

“I’m frus­trated with the dead­lock,” Petersen said in an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al last Thursday. “At the mo­ment, Re­pub­lic­ans are in charge, Mitch Mc­Con­nell is the lead­er … but most of the prob­lems we’re see­ing right now are ac­tu­ally com­ing out of Con­gress.”

While Petersen, who ran for pres­id­ent as a Liber­tari­an in 2016, faces an up­hill battle for the GOP nom­in­a­tion, his open­ing salvo un­der­scores a grow­ing con­cern among Re­pub­lic­an strategists look­ing ahead to the 2018 midterms. Pres­id­ent Trump re­mains pop­u­lar with the base—a pos­it­ive sign for the deeply red Sen­ate map—and Re­pub­lic­ans could face blow­back if his sup­port­ers feel Con­gress has aban­doned the pres­id­ent, or not done enough to help en­act his agenda.

That dy­nam­ic could have a par­tic­u­lar im­pact in Sen­ate races, in­clud­ing in Mis­souri, where the GOP is lean­ing on cur­rent mem­bers of Con­gress step up as chal­lengers. Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans had hoped Rep. Ann Wag­n­er would give them their best shot against Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill, be­fore Wag­n­er an­nounced Monday that she would not jump in­to the race. Mis­souri At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Josh Haw­ley will now get in­creased at­ten­tion as a po­ten­tial can­did­ate, though oth­er GOP mem­bers of Con­gress—in­clud­ing Rep. Vicky Hartz­ler—could also de­cide to run.

Else­where, a hand­ful of oth­er GOP mem­bers are either run­ning or pre­par­ing cam­paigns in In­di­ana, North Dakota, West Vir­gin­ia, and Michigan.

Without singling out a par­tic­u­lar foe, Petersen launched his cam­paign by rail­ing against Re­pub­lic­ans’ health care pro­pos­als, and he cri­ti­cized lead­ers on the Hill for not passing a clean re­peal of Obama­care.

“[Trump] is ham­strung by a Con­gress that doesn’t like him and doesn’t have the guts or back­bone to give him a clean, plain re­peal bill,” he said.

Though Petersen sup­por­ted Liber­tari­an nom­in­ee Gary John­son in the pres­id­en­tial race, he said he’s been “pleas­antly sur­prised by Trump” and is run­ning to put muscle be­hind the pres­id­ent’s agenda in the Sen­ate. He launched his cam­paign Tues­day from his fam­ily farm in Pe­cu­li­ar—while Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans were home in their states after can­celing a vote on their health care pro­pos­al.

Petersen de­clined to say wheth­er he’d sup­port Mc­Con­nell for lead­er, but vowed to stand along­side con­ser­vat­ives like Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee.

“Re­pub­lic­ans like to run like liber­tari­ans, but then they gov­ern like Demo­crats,” said Petersen. “I want to run to give more back­bone to the hard-liners to get the agenda passed that they ran on.”

Petersen’s can­did­acy comes at a time when GOP donors have also grown frus­trated with the party’s lack of pro­gress. At a gath­er­ing of con­ser­vat­ive donors in Col­or­ado Springs last week, some at­tendees said they warned law­makers that they would with­hold reelec­tion sup­port un­til pro­gress was made on health care and tax re­form.

It also comes amid of a wave of anti­es­tab­lish­ment polit­ic­al sen­ti­ment in the state of Mis­souri. While Mis­souri Re­pub­lic­ans say they be­lieve the state is over­all trend­ing red, hav­ing voted over­whelm­ingly for Trump in 2016, its voters nearly fired their Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or, Roy Blunt, on the same tick­et. After a bar­rage of at­tacks about his lengthy polit­ic­al ca­reer and Wash­ing­ton con­nec­tions, Blunt notched a nar­row 3-point vic­tory over then-Mis­souri Sec­ret­ary of State Jason Kander.

For that reas­on, some con­ser­vat­ive donors in the state have been court­ing Haw­ley for the race against Mc­Caskill. Haw­ley, a darling of the Koch broth­ers, has as much polit­ic­al tal­ent as Wag­n­er, al­lies say, but without the po­ten­tial bag­gage of hav­ing served in Wash­ing­ton.

Mis­souri Re­pub­lic­ans say Petersen hasn’t been act­ive in state polit­ics, and they don’t ex­pect him to draw much sup­port away from Haw­ley or any oth­er can­did­ate. (He’s raised just $70,000 so far.) But Petersen’s mes­sage echoes some of their fears lead­ing up a mar­quee Sen­ate race against a Demo­crat they view as vul­ner­able.

“Demo­crats are en­er­gized right now; they’ll turn out and vote,” said Mis­souri GOP strategist James Har­ris. “My worry is that if Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t able to move an agenda for­ward, you’ll have dis­en­fran­chised con­ser­vat­ives.”

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