Can Lincoln Chafee Have a Real Impact on the Democratic Presidential Race?

Jun 3, 2015
Originally published on June 8, 2015 8:34 am

Former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee is expected to formally announce his candidacy Wednesday evening for the Democratic presidential nomination. He’ll make the announcement at George Mason University in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Chafee left the governor’s office in January with low approval ratings. And there’s debate about whether Chafee can actually impact the Democratic presidential race.

The difficulties of his one term as governor seem far away as Lincoln Chafee drives north to to look for support among voters in New Hampshire.

"We’re on our way to the Merrimack County Democratic meeting, their monthly meeting," Chafee said. and I’m look forward to getting together with the Democrats in Concord."

Chafee’s upbeat mood comes through in this video posted on his campaign web site. The former US senator takes clear pride in his 2003 vote against the war in Iraq.

"I’m on record, right from the beginning," Chafee chuckled. "I voted against it, and proud of that vote. Four thousand dead Americans and $6 trillion in costs, it’s going to cost us, one of the biggest mistakes in American history."

Many Americans now agree that the war in Iraq was a mistake. Still, a lot of people thought it was a delinquent April Fool’s joke when Chafee confirmed his exploratory campaign a few months ago. That’s because he was broadly unpopular while governing in the aftermath of the great recession. Yet Chafee’s vote against the war in Iraq marks a signature difference from Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.

"He voted “no,” and he was right," said Larry Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He says Clinton has admitted that she was wrong on the war in Iraq, "So I suppose Lincoln Chafee could run an I-told-you-so campaign against Hillary Clinton."

Sabato suspects Chafee may be making a presidential run because he misses politics after growing up as a politician’s son and then serving as a mayor, US senator, and governor. But Sabato questions Chafee’s ability to make an impact in the race, due to Hillary Clinton’s advantages and the larger profile enjoyed by another challenger, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

"The first obstacle Chafee faces is not Hillary Clinton, it’s Bernie Sanders," Sabato said. "I don’t think there’s going to be much room in the media or among political activists for more than one clear shot at Hillary Clinton, one challenger who’s going to get headlines other than her."

Chafee faces other hurdles. He was a Republican, then an independent, before he became a Democrat. And although Chafee comes from a wealthy family, there’s no way he can raise enough money to compete on a close to equal footing with Clinton. Meanwhile, televised Democratic presidential debates may come too late for Chafee to make much of an impression with voters.

So is Chafee’s campaign more about restoring a political image battered by his four years as governor?

"I suppose so, but I doubt it happens," Sabato said. "I don’t think he’ll ever become prominent enough in the campaign for that to occur. But in his own mind, and in writing maybe the last chapter of public service in his long career, it gives him the opportunity to say 'I stood for A, B, and C in my career, and that’s what I stressed in my unsuccessful presidential campaign.' "

Chafee’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview prior to the official launch of his presidential campaign at Virginia’s George Mason University. The campaign also declined comment on another key question – how much money Chafee hopes to raise for his campaign.

Brown University political science professor Wendy Schiller said Chafee’s campaign could help Democrats in the long run.

"Certainly, I think to counter some of the negatives of Hillary Clinton you’re going to need people like Linc Chafee, like Bernie Sanders, out there, getting the Democratic Party base out the door," Schiller said. "The biggest mistake, I think the Democrats can make is to take that party base for granted."

Chafee frustrated some Rhode Islanders during his time as governor. Some questioned why he persistently fought the federal extradition of a convicted killer while failing to express much urgency about improving the state’s under-peforming economy.

But Schiller says Chafee’s presidential run makes more sense in view of his previous experience as a US senator.

"Senator Chafee was active on the environment, active on infrastructure, and well-respected on the environment," she said. "He felt in some ways more comfortable, I think, as a senator than a governor, and that leads you to question whether he is equipped to be an executive."

Schiller thinks is Chafee running for president to push the Democratic Party toward the left: "I think he also cares about infrastructure, I think he cares about living wages, and I think he believes that the party needs to hear those themes over and over again and be challenged on those issues."

Pushing the Democratic Party to the left might seem an unusual role for even a former moderate Republican. Yet when it comes to Lincoln Chafee, we’ve learned to expect the unexpected.

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