Politics & Government

This U.S. Senate candidate accepts donations in bitcoin — and gives away AR-15 rifles

Libertarian presidential candidate Austin Petersen, center, speaks to delegates at the National Libertarian Party Convention last year.
Libertarian presidential candidate Austin Petersen, center, speaks to delegates at the National Libertarian Party Convention last year. AP

Austin Petersen is running for U.S. Senate in Missouri as the “opt out” candidate: He firmly believes Americans should be able to forgo any government service or program they don’t want, whether it’s Social Security or Obamacare.

So naturally, Petersen is giving supporters a chance to “opt out” of using cash or credit cards to make donations to his campaign. Instead they can donate using the virtual currency bitcoin.

“You get a choice,” Petersen said in an interview. “Opt out of the U.S. dollar.”

In reality, a payment processor linked to his campaign’s website instantly converts any bitcoin donations into dollars to simplify campaign finance reporting. But for Petersen, a former Libertarian presidential candidate who’s running for U.S. Senate in Missouri as a Republican, enabling bitcoin donations carries symbolic power. It’s all part of walking the walk on deregulation.

His willingness to take a political point to its logical extreme can be controversial. He recently got himself barred from Facebook for 30 days after livestreaming a raffle to give away a free AR-15 rifle to his fans. Petersen tweeted that it was his way of drawing attention to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s support for an assault weapons ban.

Bitcoin is one of Petersen’s pet issues because it is tied to his self-described “really wonky” passion for monetary policy.

“Bitcoin is one of those issues that has actually got a huge community,” said Petersen, a musical theater major turned activist and media producer at Fox News. “I mean there are bitcoin millionaires out there. And we might be able to tap into that market because there will probably be no other candidates who will be better on that issue. I really would like to see deregulation on monetary policy.”

Petersen said his ultimate goal would be “the complete and total abolition” of the Federal Reserve System.

“But barring that,” he said, “at a minimum I would like to introduce legislation that would decentralize the monetary unit, the dollar, in such a way as to legalize competition: Gold silver and cryptocurrencies, so that they can compete. That would cause a spike in the prices.”

Money, he said, should be a creation of the marketplace, not the government.

“Decentralization, if it’s good for markets, why isn’t it good for money?” Petersen asked.

So Petersen is casting himself as “the bitcoin candidate.”

He isn’t the first political candidate to accept bitcoin donations — Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky took them for his 2016 presidential campaign. Some congressional and gubernatorial candidates have also done so, including Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Adrian Wyllie, a libertarian gubernatorial candidate in Florida.

Few reported receiving more than a couple thousand dollars worth of bitcoin donations, however, suggesting the cryptocurrency isn’t likely to upend campaign financing any time soon.

Still, the Federal Election Commission took enough notice of the trend to issue an advisory opinion in 2014, allowing bitcoin donations as in-kind gifts. The committee that received the contribution in bitcoin would report its value based on the bitcoin’s market value at the time the contribution was received. The limits are the same as for cash contributions. Those limits are $2,700 per election for individual contributors and $5,000 per election for multi-candidate PACs.

Campaigns also are allowed to hold bitcoin in digital wallets until using them to purchase goods or services for the campaign.

While regulators debate the pros and cons of bitcoins, the rising real-world value of this digital currency inspires the question: What makes money, money?

“Holding bitcoins in a bitcoin wallet does not relieve the committee of its obligations to return or refund a bitcoin contribution that is from a prohibited source, exceeds the contributor's contribution limit, or is otherwise not legal,” according to the Federal Election Commission.

On Petersen’s website, AustinPetersen.com, donors can use their digital wallets to enter the amount of the bitcoin transaction. Although bitcoin is essentially untraceable, Petersen’s donors must input all their personal information, as required by the FEC. Then the site does an instantaneous exchange from bitcoin to dollars.

“It locks you into the market price for whatever the bitcoin is at that point,” Petersen said.

“The other day, someone tried to donate 1 bitcoin, which was like five grand, and unfortunately it was rejected,” Petersen said. His site couldn’t handle such a large bitcoin donation at the time.

The Petersen campaign has since updated its site and its bitpay account, and now can accept bitcoin donations up to an equivalent of $10,000 per day. “That’s the total number, not per person,” said Petersen’s campaign manager, Jeffrey Carson, in an email. “We’re still held to FEC rules, regardless (i.e., $2,700 per person per election).”

Carson said the campaign will be releasing quarterly fundraising numbers early next week, including bitcoin totals. He said there hasn’t been much by way of bitcoin yet, only about an amount valued at $200 to $300.

Overall, Petersen’s Senate campaign has raised about $200,000.

For now, he hopes his commitment to bitcoin — and the currency’s appeal to Internet-savvy libertarian types — can help distinguish him from the fundraising juggernauts of McCaskill and Republican Attorney Gen. Josh Hawley, the top GOP Senate prospect in Missouri.

But Petersen’s realistic.

“We’re not going to out fund-raise (Hawley), and we’re not going to out-raise Claire,” he said. “Not even with bitcoin.”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise