Rob Horowitz: Chafee Takes Himself Out of the Game Too Soon

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


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Chafee has had his highs and lows as governor, but now has 16 months to play lame duck.

Given Governor Chafee’s dismal approval rating of 28% in the most recent Brown University Poll—confirmed by similar bad results in other polls–his decision not to run for re-election is a sensible recognition of political reality.  The timing, however, with more than a year left until the Democratic Primary is to say the least unconventional.

Most elected officials would have waited until closer to the candidate filing deadline next June, hoping an improving economy or some other new dynamic would better their re-election chances.  There is no shortage of optimism among politicians, especially when to comes to the ability to win the public’s regard and to adapt an old cliché 8 months in politics is a lifetime. In some ways it is refreshing to see an elected official who decides not to tightly cling to power.

On the other hand, Chafee declared himself a lame duck with 16 months to go in his term.  This will reduce his leverage with the General Assembly and other players he needs to move to realize his policy goals; and he was already playing a weak hand.

Wins and losses

Despite his poor job performance ratings, Governor Chafee has a number of major accomplishments.  He will leave the state in a much better fiscal situation that he found it due in large measure to a fiscally prudent approach to the state budget and his important, if secondary role, in the adoption of landmark pension reform.  Chafee has dramatically improved the performance of the Division of Motor Vehicles and championed the successful adoption of marriage equality.  He has also delivered honest, scandal-free government which in Rhode Island is certainly not something to take for granted. 

Still, the combination of the state’s persistent economic woes and the sense that Governor Chafee was not providing the kind of dynamic leadership or compelling policy program that gave people a sense of direction and hope for the future drove his poll numbers down.  Here, his rambling and discursive communications style, which in better times may have been perceived as unscripted and honest, did not serve him well.  He seemed preoccupied with secondary issues and lacking an ambitious plan to fix the economy or the ability to implement it.

Strong leaders of both parties, such as Governors Cuomo (D-NY) and Christie (R-NJ), have been able to maintain their popularity despite high unemployment and continued economic difficulties because their outsized personalities, political skills and more ambitious economic policy agendas won people over.  Governor Chafee is a good and honest man who has accomplished some very important things for Rhode Island.  But he did not succeed in putting his own stamp on what is admittedly a difficult political and policy environment. As a result, he has ended up the victim of some fierce political winds.


Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.


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