An Independent Minded Lincoln Chafee
by Charles Lemos, Tue Dec 29, 2009 at 05:33:25 PM EST
A noted scion of Rhode Island politics, Lincoln Chafee is set to announce a run for the Governorship in the Ocean State. The former United States Senator who defected from the GOP after his failed 2006 reelection bid that ended in a loss to Sheldon Whitehouse and who endorsed Barack Obama during the primaries now hopes to become Rhode Island's first governor without a major-party backing in more than 150 years. The last minor party candidate to win a state wide election in the Ocean State was Byron Diman in 1846 of the Law and Order Party, a short-lived party that developed in response to the famed Dorr Rebellion of 1841-42.
There's little doubt that Chafee is still bitter after surviving a bitter primary against conservative Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey in 2006 and less than sanguine about the GOP's electoral chances in New England. In early December after Rory Smith, the state's only Republican candidate for governor, dropped out, Chafee confided to the Providence Journal that "the big base of the party here in Rhode Island said good riddance to Chafee."
"Now they live with the results," added Chafee referring to the GOP's difficulty attracting and keeping candidates. Chafee went on to say that "the Moderate Party was formed in response to the ineffectiveness of the Republican Party. Certainly the wolves are at the door. They drove me out of the party."
The state GOP, Chafee said, is suffering from the "dark cloud" of the national party's agenda.
"The agenda that the national party is bent on pursuing, frankly, for me, is an erratic agenda," he continued. "We saw the fiscal irresponsibility of the Bush years, unprecedented spending. And then their agenda on the environment -- that doesn't sell well here in Rhode Island. Using social issues to divide the people -- gay marriage and abortion -- at a time when people just want to get to work."
The outlook for the state and national party has never been this low, Chafee said.
"The years after Watergate, those were tough years. I think this is bleaker than ever."
The last governor in Rhode Island who wasn't either a Democrat or a Republican was William Hoppin, a Whig who served from 1854 to 1857. The current incumbent, Republican Donald Carcieri, is term-limited and can't run again next year.
Chafee, who inherited his father's Senate seat, believes that there is room for something different and not just in Rhode Island. From the Boston Herald:
"There's a tectonic shift going on in the country,'' Chafee said. "In the past two elections, that Republican brand of social conservatism and tax cutting isn't selling across the country, except maybe the South and some Rocky Mountain states.''
And Chafee has no confidence the Rhode Island Republican Party can offer viable alternatives to "monolithic, one-party rule'' by Democrats. Just 16 percent of Rhode Island voters identified themselves as Republican in exit polls last November. The GOP in New England holds three governorships, three seats in the Senate, and none in the House of Representatives.
John Holmes Jr., former Rhode Island Republican Party chairman, believes Chafee has a chance to make history as an independent.
"All bets are off in this election because Linc Chafee is not your normal independent candidate,'' he said. Chafee's assets include the well-known political name, great family wealth, proven ability to raise money, and the sense among many that his 2006 defeat was more about party politics than anything personal.
"Some people feel like they owe him a vote,'' Holmes said.
"This is a smart move on Linc's part,'' said University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson. "New England's robust tradition of electing independents should work for him.''
Nelson noted that Maine has elected two independent governors in the past three decades, James Longley and Angus King; Connecticut elected Republican-turned-independent Lowell Weicker as governor in 1990, and embraced Senator Joe Lieberman's independent candidacy for reelection in 2006. Vermont's junior senator, Bernie Sanders, is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Chafee, 56, a former mayor of Warwick, was appointed senator in 1999 when his father, John, a moderate GOP senator, died in office. Lincoln Chafee won the seat outright in 2000 as a Republican.
The affable, soft-spoken Chafee didn't fit with the Southern conservatives who dominate the GOP. He supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage. He opposed President George W. Bush's tax cuts, and voted against the Iraq war resolution.
After Bush was reelected in 2004, Chafee considered changing parties to join the Democrats. "I clearly foresaw the difficulties I would have running in 2006 as a Republican in Rhode Island,'' he said.
But Republicans at the time were the majority party in Washington. Chafee wanted to maintain his majority advantage for the drafting of the federal transportation bill, legislation often laden with lawmakers' pet projects that makes its way through Congress about every five years, and for another round of military base closures that could have threatened Navy assets in Newport.
That transportation bill steered tens of millions of dollars to Rhode Island.
Chafee also worried that quitting the majority would expose him to accusations of putting personal politics ahead of his state.
"It would have been a devastating 30-second ad,'' he said.
But by 2006, he was hamstrung by his pledge to support Senate Republican leaders who opposed most of Chafee's legislative priorities. He lost the election by 7 percentage points to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. The next summer, Chafee abandoned hope that moderates could reassert themselves in the Republican Party and quietly disaffiliated himself from the GOP. Last year he endorsed Barack Obama for president.
Chafee finds it interesting that Massachusetts Treasurer Timothy Cahill, having left the Democratic Party, is thinking about an independent run for governor.
"I think the eventual next step is another party,'' Chafee said. This new party, as Chafee envisions it, would be stingy with the public's money, strong on the environment, and liberal on social issues, which sounds like a throwback to the old Rockefeller Republicans that once ruled the Northeast.
Chafee, who established an exploratory committee to run for governor in April, will make his bid official on Monday, January 4, 2010 according to the Providence Journal. It should also be noted that Lincoln's father, John H. Chafee, the long-time Senator, served as Governor in the 1960s.