Austin Petersen is a 35-year-old founder of the libertarian movement news and commentary site Libertarian Republic and a former staffer on Judge Andrew Napolitano's old Fox Business Network show Freedom Watch. Petersen is also one of the three people seeking the L.P.'s presidential nomination, which will be decided over Memorial Day weekend at the Party's national convention in Orlando, who was featured in a candidate debate aired on the John Stossel show on Fox Business last month.
When I interviewed Petersen for a forthcoming feature on the L.P. presidential race in Reason's July issue (subscribe now!), one of his selling points, he told me, was an ability as a Missouri farm boy with pro-life bonafides and a tendency to shoutout (loudly!) to the Founding Fathers, to appeal more to Republicans running from Donald Trump, and thus capture a new constituency for the Libertarians.
In an IM interview this week, Petersen says he sees signs that the inevitability of Trump is helping pump up his campaign.
"From April to May we've raised approximately $42,000. That's just in the past 5 weeks." This week saw his first L.P. convention straw poll victories, in West Virginia, and Alaska "and came within 2 votes of beating Johnson in South Carolina."
Petersen is also proud that his "outreach video to Ted Cruz [one easily accessible public posting of that vid here] supporters posted May 3 reached 461K people, and was viewed completely 160k times, and in the past 7 days, my Facebook page grew by 13,912 likes."
Petersen, an open atheist though still anti-abortion, says he's proud of how many explicitly Christian anti-abortion voters say that they are willing to support an open atheist for the first time over that issue.
Despite his sense of his own appeal to conservatives, he positions himself as the most libertarian Libertarian as well (with more years of movement activism behind him than leading rivals former Republican New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and antivirus pioneer and provacateur John McAfee). He's able to frame that libertarianism in ways he thinks conservatives can get: "I am the only candidate who promises fidelity to the Constitution, or even discusses it," he says. (At the Stossel debate, he beat up Johnson for not being hardcore on free association, getting Johnson to admit that he thinks the law should be able to make a Jewish baker bake a cake for a hypothetical Nazi.)
Within the larger parameters of a Party that doesn't get all that much press attention from left, right, or center, Petersen has lately been showing up more and more on right-wing radio where he insists he's close to bagging their full support (including Dana Loesch, Steven Crowder, and Steve Deace, and he's scheduled on Glenn Beck's radio show on May 20) and getting other bits of public sweet conservative love.
Some cases in point:
• Leon Wolf, managing editor of the right-wing website Red State said on CNN (after painting Trump as too crazy to vote for) that "Gary Johnson is a guy I would look at, he would not be my preference" but that Austin Petersen's "more my speed" (specifically because of abortion). Wolf did a video interview with Petersen at Red State.
• A diarist at the Red State site looked at the Stossel debate and found Petersen the best debater, especially compared to Johnson, and generally a knowledgeable fresh young face for the Party.
• The RandPaulTv site (a media aggregator site about things of interest to Rand Paul fans, not affiliated with him directly) thinks hard and decides Petersen is the L.P. guy best able to pick up Ted Cruz fans. Former Cruz man and right-wing blogger Todd Hagopian agrees.
• Michael van der Galien at Pajamas Media (another former Cruz man) says that the L.P. "Can Have a Great Year, But Only if Gary Johnson disappears." He identifies Petersen as "basically a conservatarian who sees eye to eye with Ted Cruz on a great many issues. He is passionately pro-life, believes bakers have the right to choose what cakes they bake, and is a fervent supporter of the Second Amendment. Oh, and he's also charismatic and a great speaker. If Libertarians are smart, they'll nominate someone like Petersen. If they do, 2016 could very well be their breakout year."
• The Liberty Conservative website analyzes Petersen's positions and declares him "leader of #nevertrump movement." Similar praise and/or endorsements from right-wing sites can be found on Constitution.com and DailyWhig.