Minnesota might see the candidate most opposed to President Donald Trump running anywhere in the country this midterm election year.
That candidate is not a staunchly progressive Democrat, but someone who once worked in a Republican White House: Richard W. Painter, the University of Minnesota law professor and frequent cable news talking head who has made himself into an unlikely hero of the anti-Trump #Resistance.
After saying he was exploring a bid for U.S. Senate in March, Painter announced on April 30 that he’d officially be running as a Democrat against incumbent DFL Sen. Tina Smith, who was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton to fill the seat vacated by Al Franken in January.
Painter, once the chief ethics counsel in the George W. Bush White House, has emerged as a prominent critic of the Trump administration — and an eager one. To his 460,000 Twitter followers, Painter supplies a constant feed of scathing tweets about Trump, covering everything from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into his camp’s ties with Russia to the president’s business interests; the ethical lapses by cabinet members to Stormy Daniels’ legal maneuvering.
The 57-year old Harvard and Yale-educated lawyer, clad in his uniform blue blazer and maroon-and-yellow tie, is also a constant presence on MSNBC, delighting liberal audiences as he shouts down Trump surrogates and right-wing pundits.
Painter’s outspokenness, and his apocalyptic view of the Trump presidency, have earned him plenty of admirers who see him as a courageous voice criticizing Trump and his one-time party out of duty and conviction. Detractors, of whom Painter has plenty on both sides, are not as kind, and sense opportunism in his bid.
Though his is not a one-note candidacy, the more parochial aspects of Painter’s platform — such as his emphasis on trade and mining — ultimately rejoin the central thread of his political point of view: the debasing of the rule of law, government institutions, the economy, and the country itself at the hands of Trump and his minions.
Smith is still the heavy favorite to win the DFL’s endorsement, and its nomination in the August 14 primary that Painter has promised to compete in. No matter what happens, his candidacy will reveal something important: how successful a candidate can be in 2018 by making their main opponent Donald Trump.
‘A very, very dire situation‘
Before his Monday announcement at the Minnesota state capitol, Painter had a March press event in the same spot, declaring the creation of his Senate exploratory committee, leaving unanswered some key questions — particularly, whether he’d run as a DFL or third-party candidate. (Or even a Republican: as recently as December, Painter tweeted that he still identified as one.)
But Painter’s splash into the race left no doubt: he would file for office as a Democrat. “I’m running against Donald Trump and every one of his collaborators in the Republican Party,” he said in St. Paul.
In an interview with MinnPost, Painter said that he would not run a negative campaign against Smith, and that his priority is that the seat not fall into Republican hands in a crucial midterm election year, in which the GOP is fighting hard to maintain their congressional majorities.
“I’m going to strongly oppose in the general election any Republican candidate who supports President Trump and what he’s doing to our country,” Painter said. “I believe we are in a very, very dire situation, and we need to have as forceful a Congress as we possibly can to stand up to President Trump.”
Though he characterized Smith as an anti-Trump candidate, Painter believes that she is not sufficiently anti-Trump. (In March, Painter tweeted that it was “hard to tell” if Smith was tougher on Trump than her likely GOP opponent, Trump-supporting state Sen. Karin Housley.) More broadly, he believes that members of Congress from both parties have not been tough enough on this administration. He’s reportedly chastised in person Republican members of Congress, Reps. Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer, for not providing an adequate check on the administration.
“I think every single U.S. Senator, every single one of them, ought to be calling for immediate hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate obstruction of justice and abuse of power,” he said. “I’m not going to single [Smith] out… There are very few senators who are aggressively insisting that there be hearings.”
On MSNBC on Monday, Painter said Smith needed to be a “lot stronger” against Trump. “She should have come out against his trade war, which is going to destroy agriculture in our state,” he argued. “She should call for his removal from office, quite frankly.”
Painter’s platform is heavily focused on Trump: his campaign website declares that Trump is a “threat to our republic.” The landing page features a photo of a stern-looking Painter sitting in his study, with the words “ZERO TOLERANCE FOR CORRUPTION,” imposed on top. Below that is a link to donate to Painter’s campaign — “no PACs, no dark money, no Russian agents.”
“We’re well beyond the point where we were when the Senate Watergate hearings began in 1973,” Painter said, referring to Mueller’s investigation. On Twitter, Painter has suggested that Vice President Mike Pence might pardon Trump in the event of his resignation or impeachment, as Gerald Ford did for Richard Nixon after Watergate. “Jimmy [Carter] can tell us all about it,” he quipped.
A household name?
Painter’s jump into politics was not accompanied by the kind of soft campaigning and coalition-building that preceded, for example, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s official entry into this year’s open-seat governor’s contest.
DFL operatives and political observers said that Painter has done little in the way of outreach to his newly-adopted party, and his plan to compete in the August primary has meant that he is not actively courting grassroots activists the way a more traditional candidate might. (Painter has lived in Minnesota since 2007, when he joined the University of Minnesota Law School faculty after departing the Bush White House. He and his family live in Mendota Heights.)
Painter told MinnPost that he’s talked to some people in the party but declared he wouldn’t go “begging for votes” at the DFL’s statewide nominating convention in June. “I’d be thrilled to go to convention if they want me to come and speak. I’d be thrilled to endorse at the state convention if they choose to do that,” he said. “Ultimately, I want to be endorsed by the people of the state of Minnesota. It’s an open primary.”
A Painter spokesman said that “Richard has openly supported Democratic candidates in congressional races in Minnesota. He has had conversations with a host of local Democrats at all levels and in the next few days will meet with state DFL leadership.”
Smith, the former lieutenant governor, has a wealth of institutional party support: she boasts the endorsement of Minnesota’s five DFL members of Congress, the mayors of the state’s two largest cities, former Vice President Walter Mondale, and key outside groups like the AFL-CIO.
But Painter’s one advantage — and the engine of his candidacy — is that he has something close to a national profile. His Twitter account has more followers than any active Minnesota politician, and more than most of his would-be colleagues in the U.S. Senate. (It’s an audience comparable to the one Franken had at the height of his Trump-era popularity.)
From that perch, Painter tosses out anti-Trump red meat that the Resistance crowd just can’t resist. Over a few weeks in April, Painter tweeted that the revelations that White House staff doc Ronny Jackson was a “candyman” explained “some of what we’ve been witnessing,” quipped that Russian translations of the Constitution would be available at the Minnesota GOP’s state convention, and insinuated that “inbreeding” had happened at the White House.
Painter has also been a defender of Franken in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations levied at the former senator, and tweeted out a now-retracted Newsweek story that claimed Franken’s ouster from office was hastened by Russian hackers who didn’t like how hard Franken was going after Trump’s connections with Russia.
Retweets and likes — of which Painter’s tweets and clips routinely get thousands — don’t necessarily make for a successful campaign. But his online profile gives him a national reach that could provide him a fundraising source for his campaign, for which he has pledged to not take any PAC contributions.
When he announced his candidacy, the comedian Rosie O’Donnell tweeted her support to Painter — and her 1.1 million followers — asking, “how can i max out to you richard – send a link out to us all.” She added, “i cheer u every day when u r on – truth teller #painter.” (It appears O’Donnell had already donated to Smith, too.)
Larry Jacobs, professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, says Painter’s social media and cable news following is unlikely to translate into popular support in a DFL primary.
“He’s got name recognition for you and me and nine or 10 of our friends, but he’s not a household name,” Jacobs said. “He’s got no real cash, and doesn’t have an organization behind him, unlike Tina Smith, who’s going to be supported by an army, by money, by elements of the DFL. Painter is kind of a lonely person in political terms.”
All politics isn’t local
Though Smith is considered the strong favorite to earn the DFL’s nomination, the unconventional style of Painter’s campaign has left operatives and observers privately speculating about how much support he could attract in a primary.
Jacobs predicted that Painter’s hard-line anti-Trump bona fides would not be enough for the DFL base, and that his past as a Republican and a George W. Bush official will turn off the vast majority of primary voters.
Though Painter has declared he’s pro-choice, he holds classically conservative views on the federal budget (it should be balanced) and trade (it should be free), not exactly Democratic orthodoxy. Beyond that, his top choice for president in 2016 was Jeb Bush, and his back-up choice was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, before he settled on Hillary Clinton when Trump won the nomination.
“Let’s face it, he’s a striped animal from a different tribe. Unfortunately, that’s the way politics are today,” Jacobs said. “My hunch is, by the end of the day, the support is going to be in the five to 10 percent range.”
Tim Lindberg, assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota at Morris, says that since the 2016 election, Democrats have refocused on state, local, and regional issues. Washington Democrats’ messaging has a dominant anti-Trump flair, which has rubbed many midwestern Democrats the wrong way. They argue that bread-and-butter issues will hand them congressional majorities, not a relentless focus on Trump, the Russia investigation, and other administration stories.
“Democrats can only ride anti-Trump rhetoric so far,” Lindberg said. “Republicans could only ride anti-Obama rhetoric so far… just having an anti-whoever’s in power message isn’t enough. Is it enough for [Painter] to win this year? Maybe.”
There’s one notable exception to the national, Trump-flavored focus of Painter’s candidacy: his vehement opposition to mining projects in Minnesota, particularly the copper-nickel mine being proposed for northeastern Minnesota’s Iron Range by the mining company PolyMet.
Painter believes that Smith, and DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar, have been too friendly toward mining interests in favor of their political ambitions and at the expense of Minnesota’s economy and environment. “I think it’s very, very short-sighted to support the PolyMet mine,” he said. “The Minnesota senators aren’t willing to take a stand against it… I’m going to call [Smith] out on mining. There’s going to be some issues of disagreement to talk about in this campaign.”
But even on an issue as local as this one, Trump connections and questions of ethics and foreign influence feature as prominently as environmental degradation in Painter’s case against mining.
In interviews and connect-the-dots Twitter threads, Painter frequently mentions that a major backer of PolyMet, European mining conglomerate Glencore, was once tied to a Russian oligarch; he also is quick to remind that the chairman of Antofagasta, the Chilean mining conglomerate that owns Minnesota-based Twin Metals, rents a D.C. mansion to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
Painter by the numbers
Some Minnesota Democrats are scratching their heads at Painter’s candidacy, and worry that he’ll hurt their chances of holding this seat even if he only gives Smith a primary fight.
Justin Perpich, a former chair of the 8th District DFL, said that Painter doesn’t stand much of a chance. “It seems like he’s out of touch with the state and the DFL voters,” he said. “It also looks like another man jumping into the race to challenge a more than qualified Tina Smith.”
In a statement to MinnPost, Smith said that her job is to be “the strongest advocate I can be for the people of Minnesota, which means standing up to the president and his administration and holding them accountable when they are doing things that are not in Minnesota’s best interest. But it also means looking for common ground on places where we can work together to get stuff done.”
A candidacy as stridently anti-Trump as Painter’s, even if it gets traction in a DFL primary, could run into problems in the general election. Minnesota is starkly divided: Trump nearly won the state in 2016, and he remains popular in areas outside the Twin Cities.
GOP candidates, such as Housley, are hugging Trump. Republicans are hoping for fireworks between the two candidates — and for Painter to push Smith toward taking a harsher line on Trump.
Jennifer Carnahan, the state GOP chair, said in a statement on Painter’s candidacy that he “appears motivated by a hatred towards President Trump. That’s not the kind of message Minnesotans are looking for — and that’s not the kind of platform that can win in this state.”
Painter disagrees, and believes that Trump’s rhetoric, policies, and conduct in office have alienated Minnesotans, even if many were friendly to Trump in 2016. He dismissed the idea that Minnesota’s political divide means that a statewide candidate has to compromise on the president and all that comes with him — and he vowed that he won’t be doing anything of the sort on the campaign trail this summer.
“We see a split in the electorate so we’ve gotta live with it? That’s not the way it works,” he said. “We’ve had abuse of power. Senators just sit on their hands because the electorate may be split, that’s not their job. Their job is to stand up for what’s right.”
“I believe that we need someone in that seat who is going to be a forceful voice for what’s going on with the Trump administration, and their obstruction of justice, and the threat to the Constitution posed by this presidency. I believe I can do that.”