The most well-worn political parlor game in Rhode Island these days surrounds Republican-turned-independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee and whether he intends to switch to the Democratic Party before next year’s election.
National Democrats gave Chafee a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in the fall, the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation hosted a fundraiser for him last month in Washington, and Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, head of the Democratic Governors Association, this week publicly encouraged Chafee to switch.
Democrats hope to improve their numbers in statehouses nationally. There are just 19 Democratic governors, compared with 30 Republicans.
But members of the state party seem tepid at the prospects of a not-too-popular governor getting into a primary that is already likely to be crowded with established Democratic names, even if Chafee is philosophically aligned with liberals on issues including legalizing gay marriage and environmental issues.
Chafee said in December he is considering joining the Democrats to help his chances of winning a second term. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in Rhode Island more than three to one, although most voters aren’t affiliated with any party. As recently as Tuesday, Chafee was coy about whether he’d become a Democrat and when he’d decide.
“At the proper time,” he said when asked by a reporter the timing for his decision. “Not now.”
Chafee is son of the late U.S. Sen. John Chafee, a former governor whose name was synonymous with the Republican Party in Rhode Island for decades. When John Chafee died in office in 1999, Lincoln Chafee was appointed to fill his seat, and then won re-election to the post the following year.
He left his biggest impression in the Senate by voting to the left of some Democrats and bucking his own party on issues such as the war in Iraq, which he opposed. In 2004, he declined to support President George W. Bush for a second term, writing in the name of Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, instead.
Despite their philosophical differences, Chafee stuck with the GOP in 2006 when he ran for re-election. After a bruising primary challenge from the right, he lost the general election to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.
The following year, Chafee left the GOP and became an independent, saying the party had moved too far right. In 2008, Chafee endorsed Barack Obama for president over his onetime political ally, Republican Sen. John McCain. When Chafee ran for governor in 2010, Obama declined to endorse the Democrat in the race out of consideration for Chafee.
Despite the lack of a party infrastructure in 2010 to help him with things like ads and a get-out-the-vote effort, Chafee won — albeit with 36% of the vote in a four-way race. He did it by cobbling together a coalition of his longtime Yankee Republican supporters, labor unions, Hispanic groups and liberal Democrats. He also paid for much of his campaign out of his own pocket.
Since taking office, Chafee has struggled with poor approval ratings. Rhode Island has one of the worst unemployment rates in the country, 9.8%, a problem that predates Chafee. And some of his top legislative priorities, such as broadening the sales tax, fizzled early on. A Brown University poll out last week found 72% of those surveyed think he’s doing only a fair or poor job as governor. Less than 26% said he is doing a good or excellent job.
Two high-profile Democrats are eyeing a run for governor next year, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. Neither boast Chafee’s tie to the nation’s most important Democrat, Obama. But they have both have strong supporters within the state Democratic Party and high approval ratings, and either would be a formidable foe.
Chafee told The Associated Press in December that he shares many views with Democrats and that joining them might make it easier to raise money for the 2014 campaign.
“There is no independent governors association throwing money around,” he said at the time. “But there is a Democratic Governors Association.”
If he did join the party, it would set up what could be an expensive September 2014 primary battle against one or more Democrats. Then, he would not have the advantage of a three-way governor’s race, which would allow him to win again with just over one third of the vote. He might also alienate his longtime Republican supporters.
“He’s an astute politician,” said Bill Lynch, former head of the state Democratic Party. “I think the numbers are such that the governor will probably decide if he runs for re-election that he’s better off in a crowded race in November, rather than rolling the dice in September.”
Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University, said she’d also be surprised if he switched.
“The only circumstance he’d do it is if there’s a really serious Republican challenger and he didn’t feel like he could win as an independent,” she said.
That could be former State Police head Brendan Doherty, who ran for Congress last year and lost. He has said he’s considering it, as has Cranston Mayor Allan Fung.
State Democratic Party Chairman Ed Pacheco stopped short of saying whether he’d like to see Chafee join the Democrats, insisting it’s a personal decision for the governor. He said he has had no conversations with Chafee about his party allegiance. He said he didn’t read too much into the Chafee fundraiser held by the Democratic congressional delegation, chalking it up to appreciation for Chafee’s work with the Democratic leadership.
Former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino said that nationally, Chafee hasn’t been looked at as a Republican because he didn’t vote that way as a U.S. senator. But in Rhode Island, the Chafee brand is Republican.
“Locally,” he said, “we just don’t know him as a Democrat.”