Chafee to Seek Re-election as a Democrat

May 29, 2013

Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

Governor Lincoln Chafee plans to visit Warwick City Hall Thursday morning to change his party affiliation from unaffiliated to Democrat and to make a brief statement.

Chafee plans to make the switch at 10:30 am Thursday, according to spokesman Christian Vareika (who emphasized he was speaking on personal time, on a personal phone).

Vareika denied that Chafee's move is an opportunistic one in advance of a tough re-election fight:

“The governor did an assessment of his own principles and priorities and his values as governor and the values that have guided him throughout his career. And he reached the conclusion that those principles and priorities align well with those of today’s Democratic Party.”

Chafee's plan to become a Democrat was welcomed Wednesday by President Obama, according to White House press secretary Jay Carney.

Rumors began swirling Wednesday morning about a possible party switch by Chafee. Politico, citing unnamed sources, was the first to say it was true:

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee has notified senior Democratic Party officials that he intends to switch his party registration and join the Democratic Party, multiple sources familiar with Chafee’s decision told POLITICO.

Chafee, a former GOP senator elected as an independent in 2010, has struggled with low approval ratings and faces a difficult reelection fight in 2014.

Chafee's approval rating stood at 25.5 percent in a Brown University poll in February.

One of Chafee's expected Democratic rivals, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, reacted to the news of the governor's switch with this statement:

"I have been a Democrat and a Red Sox fan my whole life, and I don't intend on changing either. I remain focused on bringing people together to make necessary but difficult decisions that will move our city and state forward. "

Another expected Democrative rival, state Treasurer Gina Raimondo, was a bit sharper in her response:

“As I have said before, I am seriously considering running for Governor. The question Rhode Islanders have is who can provide the leadership we need to move our state forward. The Governor’s decision to change parties for a second time has not changed my thinking.”

Chafee's spokesman, Christine Hunsinger, declined comment on the possibility of a party switch by the governor earlier Wednesday. "I've got nothing for you," she said.

Chafee spoke during last year's Democratic National Convention, sparking speculation that he might land an administration post in President Obama's second term. The Republican-turned-independent has repeatedly said he instead planned to seek re-election.

The two most popular politicians in Rhode Island, Taveras and Raimondo, are expected to run as Democrats for governor next year.

Chafee, who won his office with 36 percent of the vote in a four-way race in 2010,  toured Block Island this afternoon.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report and a native Rhode Islander, says Chafee's move to become a Democrat won't alter her view of him as one of the three most vulnerable incumbent governors in the US. 

"I actually don't think becoming a Democrat does help Lincoln Chafee at all. I think he was better in a multi-candidate general election. I can't imagine that the candidates who are planning to run for governor -- Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras -- are going to back down for someone who has a 26 percent approval rating."

Duffy says she believes Chafee made a political calculation based on a desire "to have the [Democratic] party on his side," along with help from the White House and perhaps the Democratic Governors Association. DGA chairman Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, has previously courted Chafee.

Shumlin offered this statement:

"We are excited to welcome Governor Chafee to the ranks of Democratic governors and look forward to enthusiastically supporting whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee in Rhode Island."

Former Brown University political science professor Darrell West, now with the Brookings Institution in Washington, called Chafee's move a smart one. "It's likely to be a crowded field, so he could end up winning with 35 percent of the vote," West said. "And also becoming a Democratic, possibly, could allow him to get an endorsement from President Obama. He's been close to Obama, they served together in the Senate, so being a Democrat would make it much easier for the president to endorse him should he choose to do so."

Channel 12 pollster Joseph Fleming says he's unsure if Chafee's move to become a Democrat will help him in next year's race for governor.

"His base of support seems to be Democratic voters, so in that sense, he stands a chance in a Democratic primary, because independent, Republican voters gave him very poor job performance ratings and the vote to re-elect him among independents, Republicans was very low."

Yet Fleming says Chafee faces a stiff challenge in a potential three-way primary with Raimondo and Taveras:

"He's going to need to get probably about 40 percent of the vote in that type of primary; the question is, can he get that? He obviously believes with Democratic support he can reach that threshold."

If Chafee emerges from the primary, he'll be expected to face Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican, and independent Ken Block. The problem for Chafee, as Fleming notes, is how he'd need a large slice of the vote, in a smaller field, than the 36 percent he won with in 2010.

Chafee's father, John, a moderate Republican who served as governor and as a US senator for many years, died in 1999. Lincoln Chafee was selected to fill the remainder of his father's Senate term and won the office in 2000 before losing the seat to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in 2006.

This post has been updated.