The Slatest

Bush Ethics Czar Launches Democratic Senate Bid. Can His Resistance Cred Make Up for His GOP Past?

Professor Richard Painter speaks during Unrigged Live! presented by Represent.Us during the 2018 Unrig the System Summit at the McAlister Auditorium at Tulane University on February 3, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)
Richard Painter had considered running as a Republican or independent. Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Richard Painter, who recently went from GOP ethics czar to nerd-hero of the #resistance, on Monday announced another surprising career turn: Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. Painter will challenge interim Sen. Tina Smith in Minnesota’s Democratic primary this summer, a decision that sets up a high-profile showdown this summer that could scramble the usual battle lines on the left.

Painter explained his party-switching this way: “We need to stand firm against what President Trump is threatening to do to our country, and the only alternative this fall is going to be to vote for Democrats,” he said in announcing his candidacy for the seat vacated by Al Franken last year. “The Republican Party has demonstrated that it is not willing to participate in our democratic system. The Republicans insist if you’re going to run for national office you must be loyal to President Donald Trump.”

After serving in the administration of George W. Bush, Painter has shown little loyalty to Trump or the party he now leads. In his role as vice chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning government watchdog, Painter has been a high-profile thorn in Trump’s side, working with Obama-era ethics czar and fellow CREW board member Norman Eisen to challenge the president in court over his conflicts of interest. (Those efforts have been largely unsuccessful so far, but it’s because of Painter and co. that most of us even know the word emoluments at all.) Likewise, Painter has spent much of the Trump presidency as a go-to commentator for cable news bookers looking for a Republican willing to criticize the administration on the air.

That has made Painter a hero to the anti-Trump crowd, but it’s not clear how far the #resistance cred will carry with the grassroots left. Painter may be outpacing the Democratic establishment in calling for Trump to be impeached, but that doesn’t make him liberal. He served as the chief White House ethics lawyer under Bush, clerked for a Ronald Reagan-appointed federal judge, and as recently as last month, described himself as “a centrist in many ways—right up the middle” as he was openly considering whether he should run in the Senate primary on the Republican side. On Monday, he inched leftward, declaring that a women’s right to have an abortion is “none of the government’s business,” and saying that he’s for increased gun regulations. But he still sounded like a man who would have preferred to keep the R by his name if not for the Republican in the White House.

“I tried to salvage the situation with the Republican Party for a long time,” Painter said. He also mentioned GOP Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, both of whom have been critical of Trump, but have opted to retire rather than face Trump-backed primary challenges. “Two Republican senators have been pressured out, sitting senators, because they would not support Donald Trump,” Painter said. “This is wrong this. This is not the America I want to live in. This is not the America I want my children to live in.”

The only Republican currently in the Minnesota race is Karin Housley, a small-business owner and suburban state senator. Her campaign wasted no time coming to Trump’s defense, saying Painter’s call for impeachment is “an extreme notion deeply unpopular with many in our state.” Non-partisan handicappers are giving Democrats a slight edge to keep the seat this November, though Republicans are excited by the fact that Hillary Clinton won the state by less than 2 points in 2016 after Barack Obama won it by 8 points in 2012 and 10 in 2008. Painter’s sudden entrance on the Democratic side introduces an unexpected variable into that equation, one that could thrust the primary into the national spotlight.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, picked Smith, then his lieutenant governor, in December as an interim replacement for Franken, who resigned under pressure from his own party following accusations of past sexual harassment. Smith quickly declared she would seek election for the final two years remaining on Franken’s term, and party officials did their best to clear the primary field for her, something they had been successful in doing until now. Smith also has the backing of Minnesota’s most well known progressive official, Rep. Keith Ellison, whose Bernie Sanders-endorsed campaign to become Democratic National Party chairman came up short last year.

During her four months in Washington, Smith has been critical of the president and a reliable vote against the GOP agenda, even on those issues that have attracted support from nervous red- and purple-state Democrats up for re-election. Most recently, she voted against the confirmation of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state last week and against a GOP bill that rolled back some Dodd-Frank bank regulations last month. Whether that abbreviated voting record will be enough to propel her to victory in the primary remains to be seen. But the answer this August will tell us a lot about where the priorities of Democratic voters lay less than three months out from the midterms.