Richard Painter, a longtime moderate Republican and a fierce critic of Donald Trump, just announced that he’s running for the U.S. Senate – as a Democrat. This has evoked a number of strong reactions from liberals and Democrats, with some seeing it as a great development, and others attacking Painter for it. This a nuanced development, but for now I can sum up my thoughts in four words: leave Richard Painter alone.
Based on his stated views on the issues, and his routine willingness to credit the Democrats while slamming Trump and the Republicans, it’s clear that Richard Painter hasn’t truly been a Republican in a long time. He endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump in the general election. He supports an increased minimum wage. He agrees with the current Republican Party on virtually nothing.
There are those accusing Painter of not being a real Democrat, of running a stunt campaign, or even of being a secret plant for the Republican Party. Some have suggested that he’s spent the past year and a half on television slamming Trump just so he could build credibility with the left and run for office as a Democrat, so he could switch to being a pro-Trump Republican once he’s in office. Sorry, but that’s tinfoil hat nonsense. That’s not what’s going on here. This does, however, set up an interesting Democratic primary.
Tina Smith was appointed to the Senate seat in question in January, after Al Franken resigned. Smith has previously stated that she wants to keep the seat. If that’s still the case, it’ll mean Smith and Painter facing off in a Democratic primary challenge. Smith appears to be the more liberal of the two, but that’s not yet certain. Painter served as a White House ethics lawyer, and beyond that, we only know him from television and Twitter. He’ll have to tell us what his positions are on issues like fiscal policy and foreign policy. He’s never been an elected politician. He doesn’t have a voting record in office.
I’ve argued in general that with the stakes being so high in 2018, we shouldn’t risk doing damage to incumbent Democrats by mounting primary challenges against them. But as much as I like Tina Smith, it’s difficult to view her as an incumbent. She’s held the seat for four months. She was appointed, not elected. There’s no reason to believe that she’d hold an incumbent’s advantage in a general election. Moreover, Richard Painter is the kind of honorable and politically aware guy who understands the importance of keeping a primary race respectful.
Right now I couldn’t tell you whether I’d like to see Tina Smith or Richard Painter win this Senate race. I need to hear more from them both. But I can tell you that this isn’t some stunt or trick on the part of Painter. He’s a stand up guy. He’ll sink or swim based on how he handles himself during the primary race. For now, leave him alone and let him get to it.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report