Painter's most high-profile job was in a Republican administration. He served as the chief ethics lawyer in George W. Bush's White House. Now he's vice chairman of a nonprofit government watchdog, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is nonpartisan but whose leaders also describe it as progressive. (They've sued Trump once already.)
Despite his Republican background, it's not a coincidence that Painter has decided to run for office as a Democrat. The Trump era has opened the door for Painter to run for Senate. His candidacy is getting a big boost, if not being launched, thanks to Painter's high profile as a Trump critic on Twitter, cable TV and other news media.
Therein lies the irony of politics in the Trump era: For all his criticism of the president, Painter has become prominent enough to run for a U.S. Senate seat because of help from Trump's presidency.
There are similar stories across the country. Rachel Crooks, who has accused Trump of unwanted sexual advances while she was a receptionist at Trump Tower, is running for a seat in the Ohio state House. Oprah Winfrey is not running for president in 2020, but her friends said she was “actively thinking” about it after giving a Golden Globes speech in January widely seen on the left as a repudiation of Trump.
More broadly, women-in-politics groups say that the record number of female candidates this election cycle is driven largely by Trump's presidency. Newly elected Virginia state Rep. Kelly Fowler (D) told The Washington Post last year she couldn't bear to see Trump sworn in on her daughter's birthday and decided to run for office.
“The morning after the 2016 election, I was concerned that women might crawl under the bedsheets and just try to recover,” Debbie Walsh, director of the nonpartisan Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, told The Fix right after Trump was elected. “But here is this real sense that women can't sit on the sidelines. I think they've gotten, in a different kind of way, that elections have consequences, and therefore they have to step up.”
That's not to say these candidates couldn't have run for public office if someone else were president. But they're getting national attention — as in this newspaper — precisely because of their adversarial relationship to Trump.
The next obvious question is whether candidates known mostly for being Trump critics can win. That's to be determined.
Painter must first win a primary against a sitting U.S. senator. Smith was appointed to the Senate by the state's governor in December after Al Franken stepped down amid numerous sexual harassment allegations spanning a decade. The first election for Franken's old seat will take place in November.
Smith was fairly prominent in the state before Franken's resignation. She had been the state's lieutenant governor since 2015 before going to Washington and was high-profile enough that she was widely speculated to run for governor in the open 2018 election. She's got the backing of nearly the entire Minnesota Democratic establishment and had already scared off at least one prominent potential primary challenger, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).
Painter, by contrast, has never run for office and is arguably better known in Washington political and journalism circles than among Minnesota Democrats.
The only Republican in the race is a state senator, Karin Housley. Minnesota has voted for a Democrat for president for the past 11 presidential elections. Nonpartisan political analyst the Cook Political Report puts this race as lean Democratic, saying that “it's up to Republicans to make it more competitive.”
If Painter's prolific Twitter feed since he decided to run is any indication, he plans to make his candidacy not just an indictment of Trump but also of the Republican Party that has stayed by Trump.
In other words, Painter sounds like a Democrat who's attempting to catch a ride on any blue wave created by anti-Trump sentiment. It's TBD if his plan works, but it's notable for happening at all, given that Painter's candidacy is arguably created by anti-Trump sentiment.