Chafee’s party switch reflects broader regional trends

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee’s decision to join the Democratic Party, following a stint as an independent after a career in the Republican Party, makes him the third New England statewide officeholder since 2001 to switch his affiliation.

The frequency of incumbents leaving their longtime parties – often accompanied by the pat explanation that their parties have, in fact, left them – reflects the region’s decades-long leftward trend and the collapse of the Republican Party as an electoral force in what was once fertile territory.

“It is a regional problem,” said Rhode Island Republican Party chairman Mark Smiley. “We have to make inroads. Eventually, if we don’t, we won’t be able to make anyone president or have a majority or anything. We’ll have no chance nationally.”

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“What works in Alabama doesn’t work here. Here in Rhode Island, Republicans need to talk about business-friendly ideas, jobs, getting government out of the way of the people and allowing them to become prosperous,” said Smiley.

National Republicans, he said, have recognized their shortcomings in the Northeast and are seeking to address it. The Republican National Committee has scheduled its summer meeting in Boston.

“The whole region has moved in a more progressive direction in part in reaction to the very conservative Republican tone from the national GOP, and so politicians have to had adjust to a changing electorate, and in some cases that has resulted in party switches,” said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank in Washington D.C.

In Chafee’s case, his career was blown off course in 2006 by a potent anti-GOP headwind. That year, Democrats won back the House and the Senate, and Chafee, running as a Republican with strong personal approval ratings, lost to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. He unenrolled from the party the following year, endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, and won the Rhode Island governorship in 2010 as an independent.

In 2006, six years after running as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman lost his re-election primary to a more progressive challenger. Running under the “Connecticut for Lieberman” banner, he retained the seat in November’s general election. Lieberman identified himself as an “Independent Democrat,” endorsed Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain in 2008, but continued to caucus with Democrats. Facing another likely stiff trial in 2012, Lieberman announced in early 2011 that he would retire.

Perhaps the region’s most pivotal party switch in recent years was Vermont Senator James Jeffords’, when he cut a deal with Senate Democrats to leave the Republican conference, becoming an Independent and caucusing with Democrats. That move shifted the Senate from a 50-50 split, with then-Vice President Dick Cheney charged with casting the deciding vote, to Democratic control.

In all three instances, the politicians found themselves facing an electorate demanding increased progressivism. While local political conditions vary among states, the Republican Party’s pulse beats weakly throughout the region. Just two of the entire New England congressional delegation are Republicans: New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte and Maine Senator Susan Collins. After Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snowe announced she would run for reelection, the state’s former governor Angus King ran as an independent and won, now caucusing with Democrats.

When Jeffords retired in 2006, he was succeeded by self-described socialist Bernie Sanders.

Carol Martel, a former Maine Democratic House member who currently serves as Northeast counsel for the Wine Institute, with a portfolio that includes all six New England states, said that the region leans toward moderation and that an increasingly conservative national Republican Party had steered political moderates into the arms of the Democrats.

“You don’t align with the Republican Party necessarily when you look to align with the middle, you tend to align with the Democratic Party,” Martel said.

Martel said that exposure to national tea party trends, including sharp reductions in spending and curtailed collective bargaining rights, had turned voters off from what she called “extremes.”

Chafee’s loss in 2006 in heavily Democratic Rhode Island is viewed in national political circles as something of an archetype of an individual race falling victim to a national “wave” election, where prevailing political moods overwhelm individual campaigns’ idiosyncrasies. Exit polls showed Chafee with a 66-percent job approval rating, including 34 percent among those who voted for Whitehouse. Chafee lost by 7 percentage points.

Cara Cromwell, a political strategist who has worked for campaigns in both parties, called Chafee’s latest maneuver “a little bit of Goldilocks: The Republicans are too hot, the independents don’t taste like anything, and let’s see if the Democrats are just right.”

Chafee faces sagging approval ratings and the likelihood of a contentious Democratic primary, with both Providence Mayor Angel Tavares and state Treasurer Gina Raimondo widely expected to run. On Wednesday, he won praise from the White House. In a statement, President Obama said he was “delighted” that “Linc,” with whom he served in the Senate, had joined his party.

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican, has said he is considering running for governor.

Chafee spokesman Christian Vareika said Chafee had decided to line up with Democrats because he and the party share philosophies on public education, workforce training, infrastructure investments, and gay rights. Chafee, he said, plans to sign affiliation papers on Thursday morning at Warwick City Hall, where Chafee worked as city councilor and mayor, while enrolled as a Republican.