Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee completed his trip across the partisan spectrum when the now-governor of Rhode Island officially switched to the Democratic Party.
Chafee was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998 as a Republican, lost re-election to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in 2006, became an Independent, and was elected governor of the Ocean State in 2010. He faces an uncertain re-election race next year.
Politically, Chafee has been a Democrat in all but name for a long time now – in 2012 he not only co-chaired President Obama’s re-election campaign and spoke at the Democratic National Convention, he even endorsed Sheldon Whitehouse’s bid for the very U.S. Senate seat he took from Chafee in 2006.
But since Chafee had been an Independent, two formidable Democrats — State General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras — were already jockeying for the Democratic nomination. The governor’s decision could make for one of the most competitive primaries anywhere in the country.
Taveras has also proven that he can organize a winning ground game to get to polls working class Democrats who vote in big numbers in presidential elections but too often skip the off-year elections. By contrast, Raimondo has never been in a tough election and Chafee largely outsourced his voter turnout effort in 2010 to organized labor, which isn’t a sure ally this time around. Chafee and Raimondo’s support for cutting public employee pensions two years ago has soured union leaders on both.
No matter how the primary plays out, the Democratic nominee should start the general election with the advantage. But as Nesi wrote, it might be messy:
With Ken Block taking perhaps 5% to 10% of the vote for his nascent Moderate Party, Fung or the Democratic nominee will need less than 50% to win. A primary could leave the Democrat battered, with [likely GOP nominee/Cranston Mayor Allan] Fung waiting in the wings after husbanding money for the final two months. If Chafee manages to win the primary, he will need to prove he can get his support above 40%; if one of the other two Democrats emerges the winner, Fung can fight them on the Republican-friendly turf of fiscal conservatism and good management.
Prior to Chafee’s decision, the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rating of the race was Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat, since the governor looked unlikely to get enough support as an Independent with credible Republican and Democratic nominees.
But in a two-person race (and without a formidable Independent), the state’s Democratic bent will almost certainly give the eventual Democratic nominee a considerable advantage. Because of Chafee’s switch, Democrats look more likely to “hold” the governorship, even though they have only technically had it for a few days.
We’re moving the race to Democrat Favored even though we don’t know which Democrat it might be.