Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee has come full circle. The son of former governor and senator John Chafee (R), Lincoln, then the Republican mayor of Warwick, RI, was appointed to the US Senate succeeding his late father in 1999. He then won election to a full term in 2000, but began straying further and further to the left through the first six years of the George W. Bush administration.
In the anti-Republican year of 2006, Sen. Chafee was turned out of office in this most Democratic of states at the hands of former Rhode Island Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse (D). Embittered by his defeat and some Bush Administration policy directives such as the Iraq War, Chafee left the Republican Party and became an Independent. Returning to run in a three-way race for the open governor’s seat in 2010, Chafee made his comeback successful, becoming the only Independent elected to a gubernatorial post in that particular election year.
Yesterday, Gov. Chafee completed his conversion to the Democratic Party by officially registering as a member. He did this for purely political reasons, thinking the action would bolster his desperate re-election chances. Chafee’s approval ratings are arguably the worst in the nation. Nate Sliver’s 538 website (May 28 data table) recently gathered job approval scores for 41 governors who are measured in 2013 public polling data. Of the 41, Gov. Chafee placed dead last, scoring a miserable 26:69 percent favorable to unfavorable ratio.
Chafee has never been known as one who executes brilliant political moves, and this action may actually make his re-election even more difficult. The first primary election before the new electorate is always the most tenuous for a party-switcher and already two major Democratic office holders appear poised to enter the gubernatorial campaign. It is unlikely that Chafee now joining the Democratic Party will dissuade either state Treasurer Gina Raimondo or Providence Mayor Angel Taveras from running against him.
Facing what will likely be a hostile Democratic primary electorate, Gov. Chafee’s chances of winning his new party’s nomination are probably slimmer than placing first in a fractured three-way general election as an Independent. Barring a dramatic improvement in political fortune, his decision to change political allegiance may be inconsequential, however. Today, it appears that he would lose under any partisan configuration.
With Gov. Dave Heineman (R) officially declining to run for the state’s open Senate seat over this past Memorial Day weekend (Republican Sen. Mike Johanns retiring), others are now beginning to make their own political moves.
One person who many believed would hop into the race just announced his intention to remain in his current position. Lincoln area Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE-1), originally elected in 2004, made an official announcement last night communicating his decision not run for the Senate. He joins Nebraska’s other two congressmen, Lee Terry (R-NE-2) and Adrian Smith (R-NE-3), in bypassing the statewide campaign in order to continue serving in the House.
Former state Treasurer and US Navy pilot Shane Osborn is a likely candidate. Former senatorial nominee and wealthy conservative donor Pete Ricketts is a possible entry as is Midland University president Ben Sasse. Regardless of who comes through the Republican primary, the eventual party nominee will become a prohibitive favorite to win the 2014 general election.
Because a weakened Nebraska Democratic Party is tasked with fielding strong candidates in two major open statewide races (governor and senator), it is likely they will concentrate most of their focus on the gubernatorial campaign.