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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