Ocean State: The Governor’s gambit

by John Perilli

Ever since Gov. Lincoln Chafee reaffiliated from Independent to Democrat two weeks ago, his decision has been minced and analyzed from almost every angle. Some are hailing him as a kind of transcendent political genius who operates on a higher plane than the rest of us earthbound observers. Others say he’s doomed, no matter his affiliation.

Here’s what the early numbers say: A January survey by Public Policy Polling tested Chafee, as an Independent, against four combinations of Democratic and Republican opponents, as well as against the Moderate Party’s Ken Block. The two Republicans tested were former congressional candidate Brendan Doherty (who has since dropped out of the race) and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, and the two Democrats were Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo. No matter who ran for which party, Chafee was in third place — Ted Nesi with WPRI.com has aggregated the results here. It seems clear that barring an incredible comeback, Chafee the Independent was indeed doomed.

However, his prospects brighten once he clears the Democratic field. As a Democrat in the general election, Chafee trailed both possible Republicans by only four points. The only problem is getting to that stage: Chafee came in 13 points behind Raimondo in a potential Democratic party, while beating Taveras by three points.

Oh, what risk! What drama and intrigue!

In the era of 90-plus percent incumbency in Congress, vanishing competition in federal elections, and political science models that can all but certify elections months ahead of time, a bit of gamesmanship is more than welcome to this political observer. And it certainly benefits Chafee as well: The story of his party change was first broken by Politico and the Washington Post, two DC-area national news outlets, ensuring him no shortage of good press.

President Barack Obama, who has already started helping him raise money, and Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, embraced Chafee’s switch. If anything will help him close the gap on Raimondo, it will be matching her already massive war chest. Chafee’s social and fiscal liberalism will make him competitive with mainstream Democrats who may have already voted for him, and his support of same-sex marriage will appeal to progressives and young voters. Additionally, he could get endorsed again by Rhode Island’s influential union contingent, which stood with him in 2010 (although his continued support of unpopular education commissioner Deborah Gist could damage his chances here).

One of Chafee’s most persistent problems, though, has been his popularity. Having won the governorship with only a plurality of the vote, Chafee was not very popular to begin with, but last year his approval numbers bottomed out in the low 20s. Right now, it sits at 33 percent — a marked improvement, but nothing to bank an election on.

Chafee the Democrat could benefit from a focused rebranding effort: The passage of same-sex marriage is a good start, but he could further cement his support among key Democratic constituencies by taking strong stands on payday lending, tax equity, and binding arbitration for teachers. Also, as Rhode Island’s economic numbers improve, so too do Chafee’s chances. The latest estimate puts unemployment in Rhode Island at 8.8 percent, down from its 2010 highs when it danced around 12 percent.

Nothing is guaranteed for Chafee at the moment, but considering all the attention his change has earned him, he might want to keep up that aura of suspense for now. Regardless of what you think of the man or his policies, you cannot deny that he has made some bold and risky political strokes throughout his career. From opposing the Iraq War as a Republican in the U.S. Senate to running for governor as an Independent in 2010, Chafee has no small list of gambles, and with his latest one, he’s outdone himself again. However events play out, we are in for one swashbuckling election season in 2014.

The opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations with which John Perilli is affiliated.


photo by Jef Nickerson: http://www.flickr.com/photos/49368505@N00/5320777915/in/photolist-97bnUg-ND58C-bDCKn9-5FhRDw