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Meet Richard Painter, the anti-Trump former Republican who is running for Senate as a Democrat

Richard Painter announces his U.S. Senate candidacy April 30. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune/AP)

Richard Painter may be one of the most interesting — and confusing — Senate candidates of 2018. He served as an ethics lawyer in President George W. Bush's administration, became a vociferous nonpartisan critic of President Trump and is now running for Senate in Minnesota as a Democrat.

Painter is trying to knock off interim senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.), who was appointed to the seat in January after Al Franken resigned amid sexual harassment allegations. There's no polling on the primary yet, but it seems Painter will have an uphill battle against the incumbent. His candidacy does raise a very 2018 question: Is there a constituency out there for never-Trump Republicans?

The Fix caught up with Painter on a recent trip to Washington. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

THE FIX: You went from a nonpartisan voice criticizing Trump to a more partisan voice criticizing Trump. Are you concerned that the position you're in now changes how your words are perceived?

PAINTER: I have chosen to run for office in the Democratic primary, but that doesn't mean I have a partisan agenda, and my positions on Trump's abuses of power are the same they have been since he was campaigning for office back in 2016.

Our two political parties should both be vehicles for democracy, but I'm very, very troubled by the state of the Republican Party right now and whether it is capable of continuing to be a vehicle for democracy.

Make no mistake: Richard Painter is running for Senate thanks to Trump

I hear you say, "Just because I'm choosing to run for office as a Democrat doesn't mean my criticism of Trump is politically motivated."

No, it's not. A lot of people are very worried about the state of our democracy. This shouldn't be a Republican-versus-Democratic thing.

But Republicans who are willing to stand up to Trump are marginalized, including two senators who are more conservative than I am. Senators [Jeff] Flake [R-Ariz.] and [Bob] Corker [R-Tenn.] got pushed out. The Republican Party is insisting on loyalty to President Trump, and I think that's a very dangerous state of affairs, because we should have both political parties willing to take on abuse in the executive.

Is that one reason you're running as a Democrat, because of what happened to Flake's electoral chances after speaking out about Trump?

Yeah. With Trump being there, it's quite clear that if you're not behind Donald Trump, you're not welcome to run for federal office, at least in the Republican Party.

But why try to knock off another Trump critic in Sen. Smith?

Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.) are sworn into the Senate on Jan. 3, shrinking the GOP majority. (Video: Reuters)

Running as an independent poses significant risk of throwing this election. I was not willing to take that risk with Donald Trump in the White House of throwing a Senate race to the Republican candidate, who has made very clear she supports Donald Trump from soup to nuts.

I'm certainly a lot more aggressive about my position on Donald Trump and Vice President Pence than Senator Smith is.

But it goes beyond Trump. We need to clean out corruption in Washington through our campaign finance system. I will not take PAC money. I don't think members of Congress should be able to hold stock. I think a lot of moderates and conservatives can be persuaded to support single-payer health care.

The top 10 Senate races of 2018

Let's talk about your position that you'd vote to impeach Trump. You're running on a promise to shore up American democracy. Isn't it anti-democratic to impeach a fairly elected president?

No. The Constitution has a specific procedure for the removal of a U.S. president. The language is very clear: for bribery, for treason or other high crimes or misdemeanors.

I think we've reached a point where we are well beyond [President Richard Nixon's near impeachment] with respect to evidence of bribery, treason, collusion with Russians and also high crimes and misdemeanors. We have serious concerns in all three categories.

Leading Democrats have argued it's more prudent to wait for facts to be uncovered by the special counsel.

With respect to Russia, we'll find out a lot from [Robert S.] Mueller. But his mission is focused on Russia. He is not charged with investigating other illegal acts. There's a lot going on in this administration that I believe is illegal and a violation of the Constitution, and Russia is only a part of it.

What's your path to victory in Minnesota?

Trump did relatively well in Minnesota because people did not like Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and I don't know that there was as much anger at her as there was at the system. Minnesota voters don't like inside politics, and that will be a problem for Senator Smith. [Her appointment] looks too much like an insider deal.

Minnesotans like outsiders. They voted for Jesse Ventura for governor. Trump was able to sell his bill of goods being the outsider, and we've watched what happened since, and I don't think that appeals to voters of Minnesota.

But how do you plan to win over Democratic voters who are skeptical of voting for a former Republican? Or Republicans skeptical of you running as a Democrat?

If people want to use party labels, that's how we get into this problem. If voters just want to say: “Anybody who's been in the Republican Party is going to agree with the Republican Party on every issue,” as opposed to "Look at the facts."

Doesn't that require voters to do a lot of homework about you?

I think voters are smart enough to figure it out.