Ethics cop Painter says he’s considering Senate run

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Richard Painter
University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter, a former White House ethics attorney, announced March 7, 2018 that he'd formed an exploratory committee to consider a run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by DFL appointee Tina Smith. Photo by Tim Nelson | MPR News

Richard Painter, a former White House ethics lawyer who has become a go-to commentator for cable TV, said he is considering a campaign for U.S. Senate in Minnesota, but he hasn't decided yet whether he would run as a Republican, Democrat or independent.

"I'm going to consider everything," Painter said as he announced his exploratory campaign at a Capitol news conference.

A website that introduces him and seeks donations also went up.  The University of Minnesota law professor said he is weighing a challenge to Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, who went to Washington in January after Democratic Sen. Al Franken resigned. In November, voters will decide whether Smith or someone else fills the final two years of Franken's unexpired term.

"I’m going to try as hard as I can to figure this out as quickly as I can. But I want to do the right thing," Painter said. "I don’t want to just throw a monkey wrench in this and not be able to do anything constructive. So I want to do the right thing."

Painter, 56, described himself as a centrist who sees "a lot of room for someone like me" in the political middle. He said he has supported candidates in both parties in the past.

Born in Pennsylvania but raised in Illinois, Painter was a White House ethics lawyer under Republican President George W. Bush. He’s gained fame over the past year as a sharp critic of Republican President Donald Trump, appearing routinely on cable television and joining legal actions against Trump’s administration. He said Congress should begin impeachment hearings but wouldn't say if he would vote as a senator to remove Trump if the House acts, saying it would be improper to prejudge the case.

State Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, is seeking the Republican nomination. Both she and Smith have nominal opposition in their hunt for the party endorsements but both are heavily favored to square off in November.

A third-party candidate would add a new dimension of uncertainty in a race that is likely to draw tens of millions of dollars in outside money as the two major parties duke it out. The Senate is narrowly controlled by Republicans, who see Minnesota among the places they can be on offense this election.

Minnesota has two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot for the first time since 1978, but Democratic incumbent Amy Klobuchar is in a strong position to claim a third term.

On a broader level, Minnesota is saturated with competitive campaigns this cycle, from an open governor’s race to four nationally watched U.S. House contests.