Pete Hegseth is no stranger to tough fights. As an Army veteran who has led men in combat, run a national veteran's affairs organization, and battled liberal ideology stretching back to his days as a college conservative, Hegseth has never shied away from struggle when principle or duty has called for it.
After serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a US Army National Guard Army Officer, Hegseth has turned his sights to a political battle: defeating an incumbent Democrat US Senator in the state of Minnesota. He seeks to win this upset victory with a ground-up campaign based on speaking simple but essential truths to the American people.
I had the chance to catch up with Pete recently for an interview in which he made his case that the time for refocused, honest conservatism is now. He insisted that despite his relative youth (only 31 years old) and lack of previous political experience, he would be a stalwart conservative in the Senate who would take the fight to entrenched big government interests.
"These are incredibly consequential times-- if we had the leadership we needed, I wouldn’t run," Hegseth said. Several times during our discussion he said he feels compelled to run for Senate now because of the lack of leadership displayed by incumbent Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar and her fellow Democrats.
Senator Klobuchar passes as something of a moderate in Minnesota (despite a past that includes voting in lockstep with then-Senator Obama 92% of the time). But Hegseth doesn't think that "a representative right now looking for soft easy issues and photo ops," as he described Klobuchar, is the right person to be representing the state of Minnesota in the Senate.
Underlying all of Hegseth's positions and appeals is a sense of urgency: he believes that America is headed in the wrong direction. "We can’t wait for our country to drift away from us, the time to act is now."
While this is not Hegseth's official motto, it is certainly a mainstay principle for his campaign. He believes America is spending too much, crushed under too much regulation, and needs to act before the hard choices are forced on the American people in a crisis. "By 2025--- the interest on our debt and entitlement programs will overtake our revenue," he said to illustrate his point. "My opponent Klobuchar will use this as a political football."
With that in mind, economic concerns top the list of Captain Hegseth's signature issues.
Jobs, The Economy, and Debt
“The Top three issues are jobs, the economy, and debt," Hegseth said.
On Jobs, he offered this understanding of the government's limited role in creating real employment opportunities:
I'm not going to create a single job. Senators and politicians do not create them. I want to create a business climate that’s conducive to hiring more workers. Simplification of the tax code is a good start. And lower taxes. We also need to lesson the regulatory burden for businesses.
Hegseth cited the estimated $10,000 of legal administration and fees that comes with each new hire due to the current regulatory environment in Minnesota. And on top of that,"regulations continue to grow," he added. Hegseth expanded:
You see these concerns in the way that businesses plan. It's really about the tax code, predictability, and regulation—understanding those and creating an environment in which the economy is tied to our ability to create jobs is critical.The debt/deficit problem we are facing is going to have an immediate impact on our economy. All those things determine whether our economy shrinks or grows.
I asked Hegseth if he believed he could win while running on a platform that would seek to cut spending and reform long-term entitlements. He didn't hesitate for a second:
We have to, we have to find a way to message it. We do ourselves a disservice otherwise. We need to talk about reforming entitlements. Someone like Marco Rubio shows that you can do that. He talked about the issue in a sensible way. We are reforming it to make it around for future generations. It's about messaging and having the ability to fight back hard.
He ripped the alternative: "The status quo is Medicare will be ended for us because it is literally unsustainable and financially does not add up."
On National Security
Of course, Hegseth's background as a former Captain in the National Guard means that he is well-versed in defense and national security matters. While he maintains that the economy is the primary issue right now for his campaign, he shared some thoughts on defense spending and the Obama administration's handling of Iraq and Afghanistan:
"I want to beat back the idea that we will balance the budget on the DOD. Yes, protecting our nation is our top priority. But there are cuts to be made, there are no sacred cows. I can look at where the waste is, look at generals in the eye, and say 'I don’t think contractors add the kind of value you do, for example.'"
Hegseth also lambasted "antiquated appropriations processes that go back to the Eisenhower administration." He thinks we should always be asking two question about military expenditures: "How does it affect our interest?" and "How many resources are we putting into it to affect the outcome?"
Those questions, along with his time in battle, inform his critique of the Obama administration's approach in Afghanistan:
Just 3 months ago I was in Afghanistan. You can't be successful in a war front when you surge and then say you are going to leave. As someone who has been at the tactical and operational level on the ground, I have seen that. You can’t tell the enemy when you are going to leave.
Hegseth added that Obama "Ended the war in Iraq without signing a security agreement and effectively handed the country over to Iranians."
"Our sacrifice must be honored, so we don’t create more instability in the world."
The Political Road Ahead
In a month, Hegseth faces an endorsement convention in St. Cloud. Other than Hegseth, there are two Republicans in the race, but he remains confident that among that group, he is best suited to defeat Klobuchar in a general election. Why? He believes he has a unique combination of demonstrated managerial acumen and a long track record of true conservatism.
He told me that his experience growing Veterans for Freedom into an organization with 95,000 members alongside his history of taking the ideological fight to liberals also puts him in a special position to build an organization that can beat a strong democratic incumbent:
It is Important to put candidates forward who are principled and able to win. Even though I'm 31, we run on experience. And I've always been a conservative with deeply held conservative beliefs. I was the publisher of a conservative publication at Princeton. I've been in the belly of the beast and made the tough arguments in tough places. It's not just that I've been shot at on the battlefield--- I've also made the conservative case in liberal enclaves.
Now, he's trading the mountains of Afghanistan for a different battlefield -- the Senate.
"There is a culture of cronyism in Washington—who benefits and who doesn’t—but nobody owns me," he said. "The word courage is overused in politics, but I'm going to go to Washington, and I'm not going to hedge, not going to make friends. I swore an oath to the constitution. I'm going to get our country back on track."