Richard Painter makes unlikely Senate bid in Minnesota

Richard Painter makes unlikely Senate bid in Minnesota
© The Hill photo illustration

Richard Painter is one of the most prominent Republican critics of President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE, who he has savaged in countless cable television appearances and on Twitter to his nearly half-million followers. 

Now he wants to see whether he can win over Democratic voters: The Republican, who served as President George W. Bush’s ethics counsel, is switching parties to run as a Democrat in the primary to fill former Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenFranken rules out challenge against Gillibrand for Senate seat Franken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Al Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' MORE’s (D) seat. 

He faces an uphill battle against Sen. Tina SmithTina Flint SmithSenators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Senators seek to permanently expand telehealth eligibility Minneapolis votes down measure replacing police department MORE, who was appointed last year after Franken resigned amid multiple allegations of groping and inappropriate behavior toward women. 


Painter is undeterred, telling The Hill in an interview that he believes voters will appreciate his positions. 

“Democratic voters are going to agree with me on many more of those issues than your typical group of Republican voters today because of the transformation of the parties over the years,” Painter said. “I’m going to deliver. I’ve taken firm positions on issues the voters care about, and I will get my positions implemented.” 

In Minnesota, Painter’s quest to defeat Smith, a longtime Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party insider, is being greeted with skepticism. 

Many question whether Democrats will be willing to back a Republican who so recently jumped to the other party — regardless of his personal story. 

“We don’t judge candidates based on their individual profile, it’s kind of tribal,” Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor, said of the U.S. electorate. “Richard Painter is not in the Democratic tribe, he was in the other tribe.” 

Painter appears to see his campaign as an attack on that very tribalism, as well as an argument that concern about Trump should be bipartisan. 

He grew up in Champaigne, Ill., home to the flagship campus of the University of Illinois, where he’d later teach. A registered Republican, Painter said he supported President Carter and then-Sen. Walter Mondale (Minn.), both Democrats, in their presidential bids. 

After working as a professor in Oregon and Illinois, Painter joined the Bush White House for a two-year stint as the president’s top ethics lawyer. In 2007, Painter left the White House and joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota. 

Painter argues he played a nonpartisan role in the Bush administration that bolsters his credentials as a Trump truth-teller. 

“Ethics knows no party,” he said. “Those rules should be applied the same in a Republican administration and a Democratic administration. And we’ve had serious issues under President Trump.” 

Painter presents himself as having been abandoned by a GOP that once supported environmentalism and pro-abortion rights policies, but has been taken over by a “far-right wing” — a trend that he said accelerated under Trump. 

His focus is on three issues: the travel ban, which he believes represents state-sanctioned discrimination against Muslims; “threats to the press,” which he said could be a violation of the First Amendment if someone can prove there’s a specific strategy to discredit the press or threaten parent companies of news organizations; and the fact that Trump businesses continue to take foreign payments, which could be a violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause. 

With respect to Trump’s actions on the travel ban and press, Painter makes comparisons to Hitler. 

“When he says ‘the fake news,’ ‘the lying press,’ you put that side by side with certain things Hitler said about the press,” Painter said. “It’s very scary rhetoric.”

Painter has been more aggressive in calling for Congress to investigate Trump for possible impeachment than Smith, and Republicans are eyeing how she responds. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee warns she has to choose whether to “join Painter’s unpopular crusade to impeach President Trump” or “risk alienating her base.”

The prospect of impeaching Trump is far more popular in a Democratic primary than with a general electorate, which could help Painter.

But most believe he will have a tough time beating Smith, the state’s lieutenant governor before her appointment.

She is a close ally of Gov. Mark Dayton (D), having served as a top campaign aide and his chief of staff. And her roots in the DFL Party, the state’s Democratic Party, go deep, even if she’s not as well known as other statewide officeholders.

Smith’s campaign did not respond to a request to comment on Painter, and her political team has largely ignored his candidacy.

Painter isn’t styling his campaign as a referendum on Smith, but he has criticized her for owning stocks while serving in Congress. It’s a practice that is common among lawmakers, but one that Painter says opens the door for potential conflicts of interest.

He also backs a single-payer health-care system, arguing it is the best way to cut out inefficiency and stimulate growth. It’s another stance where the former Republicans ends up to the left of Smith.

Jacobs, the University of Minnesota political scientist, admitted that Smith could be vulnerable, particularly in 2020, when she’ll have to run for a full six-year term. But he’s skeptical that Painter will take her out in 2018.

“She doesn’t have much name recognition in the state, and I think in a primary a well-funded, well-organized, skilled Democrat could be a problem for her,” Jacobs said.

“But almost certainly, [Painter] is going to run into all sorts of trouble winning the Democratic nomination.”