Lincoln Chafee's New Political Future as a Democrat

Jun 3, 2013

Lincoln Chafee is now the first Democratic Rhode Island governor since the early 1990’s. Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay wonders what the governor’s party change means for his future.

For the third time since 2006, Lincoln Chafee carries a new political banner. The Republican-turned-independent has now joined the Democratic Party, Rhode Island’s traditional majority party. The governor’s switch was welcomed by President Obama and top national Democratic leaders, including the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Chafee ally Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont.

But neither the president nor other party poobahs will have much to say about Chafee’s chances for reelection in 2014. That is now up to Rhode Island voters, who will decide whether the job approval challenged governor can survive a field of strong potential opponents.

The Rhode Island chattering classes are busy parsing a potential three-way Democratic primary among the governor, State General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. Some point to public opinion polls that show a steep hill for Chafee, whose job satisfaction numbers are scraping the bottom among the nation’s state chief executives.

Yet horse-race polling 16 months before the September 2014 election is meaningless, somewhat akin to predicting who will win football’s Super Bowl two seasons from now. It is impossible for a pollster to figure out who  a likely voter is this early in an election cycle. Such polls measure little more than public  name recognition.

The conventional theory is that Chafee’s entrance into a Democratic primary scrum hurts Taveras more than Raimondo. In 2010, Chafee took the governorship as an independent largely because he won Providence by a large margin. In that campaign, Chafee and Taveras had supporters who liked both of them, including affluent professionals on the East Side and working class Latino and African- American voters who supported Taveras for mayor and Chafee for the governorship.

Yet, whatever the pollsters and pundits say, the voter demographics of a Democratic primary favor Taveras. Most Democratic primaries are low turnout affairs dominated by Providence and a few surrounding inner suburbs and the faded factory cities of the Blackstone Valley. Other hard core Democratic primary participants include such interest groups as organized labor, liberals, environmentalists and supporters of universal health care.

In 2010, just eight of Rhode Island’s 39 communities cast contributed 65 percent of the primary vote, says veteran political consultant Anthony Pesaturo of Providence. Nearly a quarter of the primary vote came from Providence, where Taveras ran so strong in the mayoral primary against two well-regarded opponents that he captured 11 of the city’s 15 wards. When Pawtucket is lumped into the arithmetic, Taveras looks even stronger. Pawtucket and nearby Central Falls both have emerging Latino populations that have been flexing their muscle in recent elections. Taveras has been a mentor for James Diossa, the new Central Falls mayor and that tiny city’s first mayor of Latino ancestry.

Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls combined in 2010 for about one of every three Democratic primary votes, a solid foundation for Taveras. Other communities that are important primary contributors are Warwick, Johnston, North Providence, Cumberland, East Providence and Cranston.

Taveras has also proven that he can organize a winning ground game to get to polls working class Democrats who vote in big numbers in presidential elections but too often skip the off-year elections. By contrast, Raimondo has never been in a tough election and Chafee largely outsourced his voter turnout effort in 2010 to organized labor, which isn’t a sure ally this time around. Chafee and Raimondo’s support for cutting public employee pensions two years has soured union leaders on both.

Then there is Rhode Island’s embattled Republican Party. Republicans make up only 10 percent of our state’s 724,000 registered voters. Yet the GOP has a competitive candidate – Cranston Mayor Alan Fung. Fung has been a popular mayor, sweeping up a mess he inherited from the bombastic  Steve Laffey and the patronage clotted administrations of Mike Traficante.

Fung also has a good story to tell: an up from the bootstraps son of immigrants that is similar to the Taveras Head Start to Harvard biography. Rhode Island voters have long favored divided State House government, putting Republicans in the governorship to provide balance to the Democrats who have dominated the General Assembly for generations. And bitter Democratic primaries have forever led to Republican advantage in general elections for governor. No Democrat has been elected governor since Sundlun in 1992.

And the general election electorate is far more suburban and white than a Democratic primary. Labor does not have nearly so much influence in a general election and Providence’s voter contribution drops from nearly one in four votes to one in 10. The voter pool of a Rhode Island general election tilts more toward a Fung or Raimondo than Taveras.

Chafee’s shift to the Democratic Party had tongues wagging from the White House to the taverns of Smith Hill. But the governor’s latest political evolution is no guarantee of a Chafee reelection. Come next year, we may all see this as a lot of sound and fury signifying not much.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:35 and 8:35 on Morning Edition and again at 5:45 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting at the “On Politics” blog at