Ex-GOP, Pro-GLBT: Chaffee Set Sights on RI Governor’s Office
There are no campaign signs, no crowds around former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee. He’s standing, sometimes alone, as baseball fans stream toward the stadium before a Pawtucket Red Sox game.
If not for the occasional supporter who asks to take a picture with him or stop for a chat, Chafee might go unnoticed as the independent candidate for governor of Rhode Island.
Chafee is making his first run for office since 2007, when he left the Republican Party after losing his Senate seat to a Democrat. And while he’s forging his own identity, he’s taking a gamble: waging a campaign without major party funding and manpower.
Chafee is one of several high-profile independents running in a year of voter discontent, including Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who’s leading in the polls after leaving the Republican Party for his U.S. Senate run; Massachusetts Treasurer Tim Cahill, a one-time Democrat running for governor; and Eliot Cutler, running for governor of Maine.
Independent candidates - particularly well-financed ones - have had some high-profile successes. Sen. Joe Lieberman won re-election in Connecticut after leaving the Democratic Party, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, has been getting elected as an independent for years. Billionaire Republican-turned-independent Michael Bloomberg waged the most expensive self-financed bid for office in U.S. history - $109.2 million - to win a third term as New York mayor.
But there have also been plenty of failures. Independent Chris Daggett unsuccessfully ran for New Jersey governor last year and spent $1.6 million, while getting just 6 percent of the vote. Christy Mihos got just 7 percent of the vote when he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2006, despite spending millions of dollars of his own money.
Often independents are viewed as spoilers, siphoning votes from major party candidates.
In Rhode Island, the Chafee name has been synonymous with Republicans since the 1960s. Chafee’s father, John Chafee, was a governor and U.S. senator. After succeeding him in the Senate in 1999, Lincoln Chafee became known for going against the grain of his party, opposing the Iraq war and declining to vote for President George W. Bush in 2004.
When 2006 rolled around, he was challenged by a conservative Republican who branded him a RINO - Republican in Name Only. Chafee won the primary but ultimately lost to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.
His approval rating on Election Day was 63 percent.
In November, Chafee will face Democratic state General Treasurer Frank Caprio, who has four times as much money in his campaign account, the backing of a party anxious to put the seat back into Democrats’ hands after 16 years with Republican rule and a formidable ground organization that makes Chafee’s look feeble.
As a contrast, Bill Clinton, who’s wildly popular in Rhode Island, is coming next week to rally for Caprio. Chafee said he’s trying to recruit celebrities from the environmental movement, although he wouldn’t specify, only saying they’re people not associated with any political party.
"That’s one of the advantages of being in a party," Chafee acknowledged Wednesday, calling Clinton’s visit a manifestation of the party machine. "But in this climate right now, the public, I believe, has a fatigue with business as usual."
Chafee hopes to capitalize on the nearly half of registered voters in the state who don’t belong to a political party - even though they often vote heavily Democratic.
There have been no reliable polls in the race, and none since Attorney General Patrick Lynch quit his run last week, leaving Caprio the only Democrat. Caprio had $1.7 million in campaign cash going into the third quarter, while Chafee had just $420,000. Chafee has already lent himself about $310,000 and said Friday he’d consider more.
The other two major candidates in the race to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Don Carcieri are virtual unknowns and have trailed in fundraising: the Republican primary winner, likely to be former Carcieri aide John Robitaille, and Ken Block, founder of the new Moderate Party, an entrepreneur self-funding his campaign, who’s considered a possible spoiler for any candidate.
So far, the race has mostly been fought in personal appearances on the ground, not on TV. Caprio briefly ran a TV ad last year, and Block has been running occasional ads since May. But WPRI-TV says the lone televised debate drew the highest ratings for any debate it’s aired in recent memory.
Among Chafee’s hurdles is defining himself in voters’ minds without a party to help. During the baseball game, he was asked by a group of women why he switched from Republican to independent.
"It wasn’t my party anymore," he said, then ticked off a list of his views, from his support of gay rights and environmental protections to concern about budget deficits.
But his message didn’t get through to potential voters.
"He said he’s independent," Angela Nunes, a 32-year-old school teacher, said later. "He didn’t articulate why."
Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller said political parties provide clear signals to voters about candidates’ policies and provide candidates an organization that sells their messages.
"In order to overcome the lack of a party organization that does all these things, an independent candidate has to be doubly inspirational and crystallize his or her message around one or two issue areas that have strong resonance with the voters," she said. "Chafee has done none of this."
When asked what message he’s sending to voters, Chafee says it’s experience and honesty. His biggest policy proposal has been to levy a 1 percent sales tax on currently exempt items as a way to help close budget deficits without pushing up property taxes.
While he says his plan shows he’s got the courage to take unpopular stands, it’s a tough message in a state where unemployment was among the worst in the country in June, at 12 percent.
Chafee has a solid bloc of what he calls "Chafee loyalists" and hopes to bring on board interest groups such as Hispanics, environmentalists and gay rights advocates. He points out the state’s Republican Party has been ailing for years and in his past campaigns he felt as though he were mostly on his own.
This year, he said, is no different.