PROVIDENCE – Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican turned Independent who is rated nationally as one of the most vulnerable governors seeking re-election in 2014, plans to announce this morning that he is joining the Democratic Party as part of his quest for a second term.
Chafee’s move further complicates an already intricate political calculus for the 2014 governor’s race, setting up a possible three-way Democratic primary with all-but-announced candidates Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung seems to have the Republican field all to himself, as former State Police Col. Brendan Doherty and John Robitaille, the 2010 GOP standard bearer, have both announced they will not run. Moderate Party candidate Ken Block, believed to have played a determining role in the 2010 race by taking 6 percent of the vote, has said he is running again in 2014.
While the timing of the announcement came as a bit of a surprise -- Chafee was on Block Island Wednesday when the news broke on the national website Politico, citing unnamed Democratic sources in Washington – the governor had told reporters for months that he was mulling becoming a Democrat.
Good friends with President Barack Obama since they served together in the U.S. Senate, Chafee spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2012. He also endorsed Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse last year for re-election to the Senate seat Whitehouse took from Chafee in 2006 and he endorsed Rep. David Cicilline, also a Democrat, in his bid for re-election at a point in the race when Cicilline was still considered an underdog.
Chafee spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger confirmed Wednesday afternoon that Chafee will be at Warwick City Hall this morning to officially change his voter registration from unaffiliated to Democrat. He is doing so, she said, out of “conviction” and “principle.
“The governor left the Republican Party after the agenda of that party changed,” Hunsinger added. “In a very thoughtful and methodical way, the governor has come to believe that the policies and ideals of the Democratic Party are in line with his. He is guided by a quest for efficient and honest government and policies that favor the typical Rhode Island taxpayer against moneyed interests and the very powerful.
“He realizes there is strength in numbers,” she said, “and will continue to fight for Rhode Island taxpayers as a member of the Democratic Party.”
Even though this will be Chafee’s third party affiliation in the course of eight years, Hunsinger said, “He hasn’t changed, his principles haven’t changed, his core values haven’t changed.”
Chafee’s two potential Democratic rivals each issued statements on the governor’s party change.
“As I have said before, I am seriously considering running for governor,” Raimondo said. “The question Rhode Islanders have is who can provide the leadership we need to move our state forward. The governor’s decision to change parties for a second time has not changed my thinking.”
Taveras took a lighter tone, saying, “I have been a Democrat and a Red Sox fan my whole life, and I don't intend on changing either. I remain focused on bringing people together to make necessary but difficult decisions that will move our city and state forward.”
A source in the Taveras camp said the governor’s decision “changes nothing,” calling it “a desperate attempt to remain politically relevant…He could have been a Democrat four years ago if he wanted to.”
Chafee’s switch “comes as no surprise to us,” said new Republican State Chairman Mark Smiley. “He’s been drifting in that direction his entire political career. He’s a tax and spend liberal, so he has ended up in the party where he belongs.”
Attempts to reach a state Democratic Party spokesman were unsuccessful on Wednesday.
In a statement issued by the Democratic National Committee, President Obama said, “I’m delighted to hear that Governor Chafee is joining the Democratic Party. For nearly 30 years, Linc Chafee has served his beloved Rhode Island as an independent thinker and leader who’s unafraid to reach across party lines to get things done. I enjoyed working with Linc when he was a Republican in the United States Senate, and I look forward to continuing that collaboration on the issues that matter not just to the Democratic Party, but to every American.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked about Chafee’s party switch during his daily briefing Wednesday. His answer: “I would simply say that the President welcomes Governor Chafee to the party. Governor Chafee has been a longtime supporter of President Obama, and not as a party matter, but as a supporter of the President and his policy proposals. But I don't have any other response beyond that.”
Pollster and political analyst Joe Fleming of Cumberland said that in polling he did last year “his base of support was Democratic voters; he had his best job rating with the Democrats. He had very poor job ratings with Independents and Republicans.
“A lot of people have a very negative opinion of Chafee,” Fleming noted. “His job rating is still in the 20s (percent); his vote to re-elect is 18 percent.”
One important factor, Fleming said, is that the race will now cost Chafee a lot more money now that he will have to compete in a primary as well as the general election.
The Democratic primary “is not going to be an easy run for him,” Fleming said, “and I think he is going to have an even more difficult time in the general election.”
Others also weighed in on Chafee’s announcement.
“The Democratic Party has always been about inclusion, so I am certainly pleased that Governor Chafee has joined our ranks,” House Speaker Gordon Fox said in a written statement. “I have not had the opportunity to discuss his decision and his future plans, but I look forward to talking about it with him soon. I have enjoyed an excellent personal relationship with the Governor and he has always been a true gentleman.
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed said she also welcomes Chafee to the Democratic side.
“I look forward to continuing to work in partnership with the Governor to move Rhode Island’s economy forward. It has long been clear that Governor Chafee has embraced many of the ideals of the Democratic Party, such as investing in education, responsible budgeting, and fighting for the middle class.
Jennifer Duffy of the respected Washington D.C. based Cook Political Report tweeted Wednesday that Chafee becoming a Democrat “does nothing to improve his chances of a second term.”