Lincoln Chafee is hardly a household name, but he’s expected to declare his presidential candidacy Wednesday night in what a spokesperson is billing as a “major announcement” about his 2016 plans.
Chafee, if he gets in, will join a Democratic field so dominated by Hillary Clinton that most potential top-tier potential candidates have stayed out.
But in a video announcing his exploratory committee, Chafee, a former Republican and Independent, said the country needs more pragmatic leaders, especially when it comes to foreign policy.
Of all the longshot candidates running against Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Chafee might be longest. The former Rhode Island senator and governor does not have a national support base or clear path to victory. But he’s willing to attack Clinton directly, which could give him critical visibility.
Here’s five things you need to know:
1) Scion of a political family - At least as much as Clinton and Jeb Bush, Chafee owes his national political career to his family. When his father, longtime Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee, died in 1999, Lincoln Chafee was appointed to replace him. The next year, the younger Chafee ran for and won the seat outright.
His father was a liberal Republican, in the old school Yankee tradition. He had previously served as governor of Rhode Island, one of the most Democratic states in the country. But Lincoln Chafee’s parents felt such a historical affinity with the GOP that they named their son after the 16th president.
Lincoln Chafee was uninterested in politics at first. After graduating from Brown University in 1975, he moved to Montana to learn how to shoe horses and spent seven years working as a farrier at horse racing tracks. He returned to Rhode Island and ran for an obscure position as a delegate to constitutional convention. Later he was elected mayor of Warwick, the state’s second largest city.
2) A former Republican - Like his father, the younger Chafee was a liberal Republican. But the party proved to be an ill fit as it moved right, and eventually cost him an election. Chafee was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the Iraq War, and one of the few to vote against George W. Bush’s tax cuts. He and the president did not get along. Chafee was a socially liberal environmentalist who winced at GOP-backed anti-abortion votes in Congress and proudly drove a Toyota Prius at home.
During his 2006 reelection bid, he was put in the doomed position of having to prove to Republicans in the primary that he was one of them, while still winning over Democrats and independents in the blue state’s general election. “I’m running for opposite constituencies,” Chafee told the Washington Post in April of that year. “It’s impossible.”
He lost to Democrat Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, whose father happened to be roommates with Chafee’s father at Yale.
3) Chafee had a difficult tenure as governor - After losing his Senate seat, Chafee taught at Brown before deciding to make a run for governor in 2010. The former Republican ran as an independent with the slogan “Trust Chafee” and won, thanks partially to national Democrats like President Obama declining to endorse his Democratic opponent. (After the snub, Democratic candidate Frank Caprio said Obama could “take his endorsement and really shove it.”)
But Chafee struggled to enact his economic agenda as governor got bogged down in two-year controversy over his refusal to call a tree in the Statehouse a “Christmas Tree.”
“The ‘holiday tree’ – not ‘Christmas Tree’ – thing stands out in peoples’ mind,” recalled J. Michael Downey, president of the Rhode Island chapter of AFSCME, the public sector union. “He’ll take some funny stands that may not be most popular.”
4) A Rhode Island problem - Chafee would be one of several 2016 candidates with problems at home. The former governor declined to run for reelection in 2014 amidst polling showing his approval rating slipping to as low as 26%. The state had fared poorly in the Great Recession and had high unemployment rates. Chafee left office earlier this year, he says, in order to pursue a presidential run.
But Rhode Islands seem more surprised by Chafee’s presidential ambitions than anything else. The Providence Journal was particularly harsh. “The idea that such a dismal record in an executive position would be a recommendation for the presidency (of the United States!) seems preposterous,” the state’s largest paper unloaded in an editorial. “If Lincoln Chafee believes his quest for the presidency would reflect well on Rhode Island, he may be even more disconnected from reality than his critics think.”
5) He’s the only Democrat going after Clinton right now - While he is polling at 1% or less in most 2016 surveys, Chafee could shake up the race by going after Clinton more directly that some of his rivals. Chafee has called Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War “disqualifying,” both for a commander in chief and Democratic nominee.
It’s not a new position for Chafee, who is staunchly anti-interventionist and a big booster of the United Nations and multilateral diplomacy. In his 2008 book, “Against the tide,” Chafee called Clinton a “Democratic Bush enabler” for supporting the president’s war effort.
Chafee has also gone after Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, her political “expediency,” and her generally more “Bush-like” foreign policy views.
Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have lately shown more willingness to challenge Clinton outright, but have have come nowhere near yet to what Chafee has been willing to say.
The question is whether the charges will be enough to put Chafee on same plane to even look Clinton in the eyes when he attacks her.