Will Governor Chafee Join the Democratic Party?
Tuesday, September 04, 2012
With Governor Lincoln Chafee set to deliver a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this evening, it’s easy to see why local political insiders have speculated that it might not be long before the former Republican Senator officially joins the Democratic Party.
Chafee, an Independent, ran to the left of the Democratic nominee for Governor (Frank Caprio) in a four-way race in 2010 and thanks to his endorsement of President Obama in 2008, managed to keep the President from announcing his support for Caprio during a visit shortly before Election Day.
And experts say 2014 will be no different.
“At this time I see little advantage for the Governor to change parties unless he can convince the state Democratic leadership to endorse his re-election bid,” said Rhode Island College professor Dr. Kay Israel. “Given the emergence of both Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras that's not likely. Nor are they likely to wait four more years for their chance to run for his office. So, for Chafee to win, he'll need a three-way race again and hope for a plurality of the votes.”
Remaining Independent Helps Chafee
Israel said endorsing the President allows Chafee to become a more viable alternative to those Democrats that will be disaffected from whichever wing of their party seems to be represented by the gubernatorial nominee. But by remaining Independent, he doesn't totally alienate his limited base that normally votes Republican.
Chafee, who is co-chairing Obama’s re-election bid, has not ruled out joining the Democratic Party ahead of the 2014 Governor’s race, but his first two years in office have suggested he won’t always be in lockstep with the groups that helped elect him.
Chafee was criticized by several union heads last year when he endorsed a plan to overhaul the state’s pension system. At the time, National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEA-RI) executive director Robert Walsh accused Chafee of going back on his promise to protect public employee pensions.
At the same, his executive order recognizing same-sex marriages from out-of-state as well as his support for allowing in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants has kept liberals happy and left Republicans counting down the days until the 2014 election. While Chafee will never win over the conservative wing of the state GOP, Israel said remaining Independent might be beneficial to the Governor.
“Re-election isn't a sure thing for Chafee, but he doesn't harm his chances by appearing to urge voters to go beyond the divisive partisanship prevalent this year,” Israel said.
Dem. Party Chairman: Not Just Democrats Voting in November
Democrats have mostly stayed mum on whether they’d like to see Chafee run for re-election as an Independent in two years, particularly with the two most popular politicians in state (General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, both Democrats) expressing interest in running for Governor.
State Democratic Party Chairman Ed Pacheco said the decision to allow Chafee to speak at the convention is a sign that it isn’t just Democrats who support the President.
"Governor Chafee and President Obama have a relationship that goes back to their days together in the Senate,” Pacheco said. “He has been invited to speak as a friend and as a current independent who, as a Republican, endorsed the president early on in 2008. The State Democratic Party and the Democratic delegates elected to represent Rhode Island are looking forward to celebrating an exciting convention week that will outline on a national stage the ideals Democrats hold dear. Unlike the Republican convention speakers who focused on leveling petty attacks, I'm certain those chosen to speak will offer a clear vision for what we as a country need to do to move us forward, not back. It's not just Democrats voting come November and it's important to demonstrate that cross-section of the country who have supported and will support this president in his bid for re-election."
Chafee called Obama a friend to Rhode Island.
“I am honored to be attending the 2012 Democratic National Convention,” Chafee said. “President Obama has been a friend to Rhode Island, his policies have brought valuable benefits to the people of our state during historically difficult times, and I am proud to explain to the convention audience why I – a former Republican – and lots of people like me are supporting the President’s re-election.”
GOP Chairman: Different Paths Being Articulated
While Chafee has received little support from the state GOP, chairman Mark Zaccaria stopped short of criticizing the Governor for speaking at the convention. Zaccaria said he hopes the Governor will reinforce that idea that the country needs to remain “fiscally strong and guided by its founding principles.”
“I think all Americans need to stop, and think about the forum we’ve all always had where everyone will listen to us, or at least be allowed to do so,” Zaccaria said. “I think two distinctly different paths are being articulated for our nation and I think it’s time for each of us to think first and then vote second for the course we believe will best serve those first freedoms all Americans enjoy.
Zaccaria continued: “If we do, I am confident that we will have an America four years from now that will permit Governor Chafee to say whatever he pleases to whomever will listen to him then. If we collectively choose the path to short term ease but long tern ruin, though, within four years it could very well be that neither the Governor nor anyone else in Rhode Island has the freedom that he and I will both exercise next week.”
Experts: Chafee Needs to Avoid Primaries
But if he wants to remain in the Governor’s office in two years, the consensus is Chafee should remain an Independent.
“Becoming a Democrat would not be a good move for Chafee because it would open himself up to Democratic primaries,” said Darrell West of the Brookings Institution. “As a former Republican, it will be difficult for him to generate as much enthusiasm for himself among the party faithful than would be the case for those who have been lifetime Democrats.”
West said Chafee would not be able to defeat any of the leading Democrats in the state in a primary and that by remaining an Independent, he would need “only 35 to 40 percent of the vote in order to win elections.”
Quest Research pollster Victor Profughi agreed with West, but said even running in a three-or-four-way General Election might not help Chafee, whose approval rating was 22 percent in Brown University poll released last February.
“Joining the Democrat party probably will only help if all other interested Democrats would decide they will defer to him [and that] probably won't happen,” Profughi said. “Otherwise, his best hope is a multi-candidate race, which probably wouldn't be enough either. Or his retirement.”
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