How The Heck Did Lincoln Chafee Get Elected In The First Place?

Lincoln Chafee made his official debut to the nation on CNN’s debate stage Tuesday night and … it didn’t go so hot. He received only about nine minutes in speaking time – far less than the other candidates – and yet didn’t even need that much to show how deeply out of his league he stands in this presidential race. In an embarrassing performance panned by nearly every debate review, Chafee struggled to make coherent arguments, blamed a bad vote on a key banking regulation on it being his first day on the job and got completely shot down by Hillary Clinton, who ignored his weak criticism of her email server.

The debacle added to confusion from political analysts as to why he’s running in the first place. From his poorly attended announcement this summer – sidetracked by his peculiar embrace of the metric system – to his barely nonexistent $15,000 fundraising haul, to his almost complete lack of campaigning in the early states, Chafee’s bid is bizarre at best. And it leaves one wondering about how this guy was a mayor, senator and governor. That’s an impressive resume. Certainly he must have some sort of political skills, right? How on earth did he get elected to anything?

Starting Line spoke with a number of journalists, elected officials and party leaders in Rhode Island to figure that question out. The answer boils down to a number of lucky factors that paved the way for the most unlikely of politicians to accumulate such electoral success. Among those: a well-known and respected last name, family money and a series of unique split electoral situations.

An Unusual Road To Electoral Success

Chafee’s early job history wasn’t exactly what you expect as a first step to a career in elected office: After attending Brown University, he landed his first job shoeing horses in Bozeman, Montana. Some years later he returned to his hometown of Warwick, where his family owned a horse farm. There he ran for and won a seat on the city council in 1986.

“He was born with a famous last name in Rhode Island politics,” says Scott MacKay, a Rhode Island NPR reporter who covered state politics for many years with the Providence Journal. “His father, John Chafee, was a very well-liked liberal Republican Governor and then U.S. Senator. Chafee himself started at the bottom rung – he ran for city council in his hometown.”

He ran for mayor of Warwick once and lost, but tried again in 1992 and won, based largely off his famous name and, perhaps more importantly, a split field, something that would become a recurring theme in his electoral luck.

“When he won the governor’s race, it was similar to [the second time] when he ran the mayor’s race – it was in-fighting in the Democratic Party,” explains Steve Merolla, a Warwick City Councillor who represents the same district Chafee once did. The sitting mayor and a school committee member both ran, allowing the Republican Chafee to get elected in a Democratic-leaning town. “They split the vote and he got in without a majority of the popular vote.”

“He actually did a pretty good job as mayor,” contends MacKay.

In 1999 his father passed away while in office, and Chafee was appointed to his senate seat by Lincoln Almond, the Republican Governor at the time. The following year was his one truly successful electoral victory.

“I think the most important thing to know about Lincoln Chafee in electoral politics here is that he’s actually only won one statewide race with a majority of the vote in Rhode Island, his 2000 full term in the U.S. Senate after he’d been the appointee after his father died,” explains Ted Nesi, a political reporter for WPRI-12, who’s covered Chafee since 2010. “He’s had two wins, and one of them was with only 36% of the vote.”

After being defeated for his senate seat by Sheldon Whitehouse in the Democratic wave year of 2006, that 36% victory came in 2010 when he ran for Governor, squeaking out a slim win over a fractured field. Running as an independent, Chafee beat out a four-person field that saw the Republican candidate come within 2% of Chafee’s total, a Democrat who imploded near the end of the campaign, and a “moderate” party candidate who received 6.5% of the vote.

Rhode Islanders note that in all of these races, a healthy campaign war chest, filled at times with money from his own personal wealth, greatly assisted Chafee’s wins. So, too, did good consultants – Tad Devine, who ironically is now a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders, steered his 2010 gubernatorial campaign to victory.

A “Quirky” Personality

The odd Lincoln Chafee that 15.3 million viewers saw on Tuesday night was the real deal – he did not sugarcoat himself nor did he waver from his quirky personality that so many of the Rhode Island sources said was the hallmark of a Chafee interaction.

“The Lincoln Chafee people saw [Tuesday] night … that’s him in a lot of ways,” says Nesi. “He’s quirky. That’s the reference you always see about him.”

Brandon Bell, chairman of the Rhode Island Republican party (obviously no fan of Chafee’s since his party switch), agrees that the American people saw the version of Chafee that Rhode Islanders know well.

“Chafee was as bizarre [at the debate] as he was our governor,” says Bell in an email to Starting Line. “In office he was not a block of granite but rather as unpredictable as a magic eight ball … He does not have the gravitas or weight, measured in any METRIC, to be standing on that stage.”

“He’s a very quirky individual,” agrees Jack Lindenfeld, a Democratic district chairman in Rhode Island. “He’s also very principled, but a little odd. It’s hard to put into words.”

Even Scott Avedisian, the current mayor of Warwick and 35-year-long friend of the Chafee family, notes that Lincoln’s campaign style in Rhode Island didn’t fit the norm.

“He’s never conventional in the way he campaigns,” says Avedisian.

Still, many Rhode Islanders fluent in Chafee also all remarked on his steadfast beliefs and principled demeanor as positive aspects of his personality that helped him throughout his political career.

“He’s a very principled, direct person,” Avedisian offers. “He’s going to make sure that his integrity remains intact.”

“He always marketed himself as a person whose family is almost like the Kennedys,” Merolla recalls. “His family has a long history of trust in Rhode Island, and he was a candidate who spoke from the heart. Rhode Islanders could trust him, that he would tell the truth.”

“I think people historically who are drawn to Lincoln Chafee is because they see him as a man of principle, someone who doesn’t change his mind,” says Nesi. “It’s nothing to do with terrific oratory or a deep platform on the issues … It’s just they want someone they really trust and someone who is going to tell you the exact honest truth of what he thinks, popular or not.”

“The one thing that’s always endeared him to people here is that he’s a decent fellow, he’s honest,” says MacKay. “He’s a kind of politician where you know where he stands.”

Throughout his presidential run, Chafee has often referred to his honesty and trustworthiness, emphasizing that he never had any scandals during his time in office. This point usually brings chuckles from crowds and the occasional boos from Hillary Clinton supporters, perceiving it as a slight against Clinton. Starting Line reporters have always doubted this was his real goal, and conversations with Rhode Islanders actually backed that up some. The state has seen a host of corruption scandals in state government, and Chafee’s “no scandals” brag may actually be more about contrasting himself with that unfortunate history than landing a blow on Clinton. Which would mean Chafee somewhat inadvertently backs into his toughest criticism of the Democratic front-runner, humorously matching his awkward campaigning style.

What’s He Really Up To?

As mentioned throughout the conversations with the Rhode Islanders familiar with Chafee, his time in public office was, for the most part, not very positive, or at least nothing as historical as his father, John’s. The one time he did hold high favorables (in the 60’s, says Nesi) was in 2006 when he lost his Senate race. That loss came largely thanks to Whitehouse’s success in convincing voters Chafee would help Republicans maintain a majority in the U.S. Senate.

But later in his career, Chafee struggled with his popularity.

“His approval ratings … I don’t think we ever found him above 30 percent,” says Nesi of WRPI’s polling. “Usually the approval rating was in the 20’s … Too often, he would get tied up in minor controversies and get off track of what he wanted his message to be. You know, he won with only 36 percent of the vote, so he already started with only about a third of the electorate wanting him in the job, and obviously he never recovered from that.”

Bell believes that Chafee was a “complete failure of leadership as governor,” and that he was a “national embarrassment … by not calling the Christmas Tree a Christmas Tree”(one of several media distractions he faced in office).

“He wasn’t all that popular, so he decided not to run for re-election [as governor] because he probably thought he would lose,” says MacKay. “Instead he decided to run for president, which frankly astounded a lot of people in the political hierarchy.”

A number of theories bounce around Rhode Island politics as to why he’s really running. A few think he’s simply positioning himself for a cabinet position or ambassadorship, using the limelight of a presidential campaign to boost his national profile. Others, however, think the Iraq vote back in 2002 still weighs heavily on his mind.

“The defining thing for him is that he voted no on the Iraq war, he thinks he was vindicated on that,” suggests Nesi. “He’s always looking for ways to highlight that, and I think it drives him nuts that Hillary Clinton, who voted the other way on that is on the path to winning the Democratic nomination, when he lost his senate seat – though he voted the right way on it – because he was a Republican.”

Others believe his run might be fueled by a long-standing grudge against Hillary Clinton, who backed his Democratic opponent in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. President Obama, who had been close with Chafee during their shared time in the Senate, declined to endorse Frank Caprio, the Democrat in the race, when he was in the state campaigning for others (Caprio then famously said Obama could “shove it” with the endorsement, causing damaging news stories that badly wounded his campaign). The Clintons, on the other hand, were longtime close friends of Caprio and stumped for him during the election.

No matter the motivation behind the speculation, Rhode Island political leaders and experts agree that Chafee’s announcement for president can be summed up in one word: shocking.

“I think people don’t quite know what to make of it,” says Nesi. “You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who wasn’t shocked about his announcement in the spring.”

“I was totally surprised by him running for president,” says Lindenfeld. “I mean, the man barely got elected as governor, and now he wants to run for president?”

“It is sad – we at the Rhode Island Republican Party were rallying behind his main focus to point out that Hillary Clinton is horrible for this country,” says Bell, who thinks Chafee should drop out to avoid embarrassment to the state. “He failed miserably. He did not point out her lack of character and lack of integrity. He did not talk about her un-trustworthiness and failure of accomplishment. He was not effective at getting to the heart of how he would be a better leader.”

Still, Chafee retains some loyalty in the state, and many wish him well, even if they didn’t expect his decision.

“I was very surprised to see that he is running for president,” says Avedisian. “But you know, I give him credit for trying. I understand what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to get his message out there and he’s going to stick to it.”

An Impossible Road Ahead

No one really thought Chafee had much of a chance to even draw a decent level of support in the Democratic primary. After Tuesday’s night debate, the expectations have somehow gotten even lower.

“He had previously a more robust campaign operation around him, as far as I can tell this year he only has a handful of folks staffing him,” Nesi points out. “It’s definitely a millionaire candidate, but a shoestring campaign … This time, it seems like he’s just piloting the thing himself … So I think we’re seeing what he’s inclined to do when he doesn’t have that larger paid staff around him.”

“I just don’t see any way he gets traction,” says MacKay.

Unfortunately for Chafee, his major redeeming quality, that he’s seen as an honest, straight-forward politician was undermined by his equivocating Glass-Steagall answer in the debate. Add that to the host of other problems he faces as an underfunded candidate, and it’s difficult to see where he goes from here.

So, does Chafee have an impressive electoral resume as mayor, senator and governor? Yes. But Democrats shouldn’t be surprised when his performance on the campaign trail fails to match his electoral background, given his history of getting by on his family name and lucky election scenarios. How long he stays in, and how much further embarrassment he can weather, is the only real question that remains.


by Pat Rynard and Sarah Beckman
Featured photo via John Premble

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