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Chafee Won’t Declare Independence

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) is counting on independent voters to propel him past Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey in next September’s GOP primary.

But he is not looking to join their ranks.

The scion of a moderate Republican Senator, Chafee has been courted by Democrats to switch parties and strayed from his leadership — going so far as to publicly disclose that he did not vote for President Bush in November. But he is not considering bolting the party — even for strategic reasons.

As few as 25,000 voters can determine a Republican primary in the Ocean State, and those voters tend to be more conservative than Chafee, which might make skipping the primary and running in November as an Independent pretty tempting.

“No,” Chafee replied when asked if he might do just that.

“I am not inclined to run away from the primary,” he said — which is about as close to “bring it on” as the unassuming Chafee gets.

Besides, Chafee added, being an Independent in the Senate can be dicey — currently Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) is the only one, and he is retiring at the end of the 109th Congress — who do you caucus with? he asked.

Would he consider running as an Independent, to get past Laffey in November, with the understanding that he would then rejoin the GOP after winning re-election?

“That sounds like too much maneuvering,” he answered.

Even though he is in for the race of his life, it looks like Chafee will either return to the Senate as a Republican or go down trying.

If he were to lose to Laffey, who has strong support within some local Republican parties, Chafee could not ditch the party and run in the general election as an Independent.

Rhode Island, like many states, has a “sore loser” law on the books that prevents such an occurrence.

If Chafee wanted to run as an Independent he would have to collect 1,000 signatures, something that is required of any gubernatorial or Senatorial candidate in Rhode Island, and renounce his membership in the Republican Party by late April.

Rhode Island law requires that anyone who seeks public office “shall not have been a member of a political party other than the declared political party within 90 days of the filing” deadline.

The filing deadline with the Rhode Island secretary of state — from which the 90 days are counted — is June 28.

Chafee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee scoff at the notion that Chafee would consider such a move.

Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University, said that Chafee, quite simply, “is a Republican.” Furthermore, running as an Independent would be unwise, he said.

“It would be very risky for him to do that,” West said. “In a general election a Democrat could win with 38 percent of the vote, and a Democrat in Rhode Island can [definitely] get 38 percent.”

Rhode Island gave Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) a 20-point win over President Bush in last year’s presidential election.

In 1994, the opponent of the late Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), Lincoln Chafee’s popular father, mustered 35 percent of the vote.

Chafee’s best bet is to stick with his strategy of trying to persuade Democrats and independents — 51 percent of Rhode Island voters are not affiliated with any party — to participate in the Republican primary come Sept. 12, West said.

Independents can vote in either the Republican or the Democratic primary. If a Democrat wants to vote in the Republican primary, he would have to change his party preference 90 days before the election, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Chafee does not have to convince that many Democrats or independents to vote in the Republican primary to affect the outcome, West said. The current record for participation in a Republican primary, set a decade ago, is 45,000 voters.

If Chafee could persuade just 10,000 non-Republicans to vote for him Sept. 12, “it would make a huge difference,” West said.

But Democrats and independents may be tempted to vote in the Democratic primary, where there is a competitive Senate battle and where several lower offices could be hotly contested. Still, West predicted that the usually uneventful GOP primary will be anything but next year.

“I think we’re going to have record turnout in the GOP primary,” he said.

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