Analysis: Chafee scrambles the 2014 campaign – once again


Angel Taveras has always liked Lincoln Chafee. But he’s probably never liked him more than he does today.

Chafee’s surprise announcement that he won’t seek re-election – made outside the DMV, no less – sets up the 2014 Democratic primary for governor as a clear choice between two formidable candidates: Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, each a first-termer with a high approval rating.

That’s good news for Taveras. Raimondo isn’t going to win over the state’s politically powerful public-sector unions, and she’s going to face at least some resistance from those liberal Democrats who are skeptical of her ties to the financial sector. Taveras, on the other hand, is viewed more warmly by labor for negotiating his pension cuts – an oft-heard talking point these days.

The big challenge for Taveras was going to be competing with Chafee for the same slice of the electorate – Latinos, liberals and labor. Chafee was unlikely to win the primary, but it’s conceivable he could have taken enough votes from Taveras to hand victory to Raimondo – an ironic possibility considering Chafee has a much warmer relationship with the mayor than he does with the treasurer.

By exiting the race, Chafee gives Taveras a much clearer path to the nomination. The mayor can fight Raimondo on the turf of fiscal responsibility, citing his year and a half working to keep the capital out of bankruptcy, while arguing his negotiated settlement to the city’s pension crisis is a more conciliatory – and more progressive – approach than Raimondo’s top-down reform.

Raimondo’s advisers know all this, of course. Their task in the coming months will be twofold: establishing the treasurer’s Democratic bona fides to win the primary, and tearing down Taveras’s accomplishments in Providence to raise doubts about whether he should get a promotion. Raimondo has more than $2 million – along with outside allies – to help her with that task, and Chafee’s exit will let them train all their fire on Taveras.

It’s not clear yet how Chafee’s decision will reverberate for the Republicans. A Democrat hasn’t won a gubernatorial election in Rhode Island since 1992, which makes the GOP nomination a valuable commodity despite the state’s deep-blue hue. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung is still the most serious candidate, but Ken Block, John Robitaille and others could take another look at the race now. However, they have to feel less confident about the GOP’s prospects against Raimondo or Taveras than against Chafee.

As for Chafee, the 60-year-old governor’s decision was stunning mostly because it came out of the blue on a quiet Wednesday afternoon – the writing had been on the wall for a while. His poll numbers have always been anemic, and his fundraising in recent quarters has been weak. Chafee has managed to hemorrhage support each time he’s been on a statewide ballot: he got 57% in 2000, 47% in 2006 and 36% in 2010.

In short, it was very, very hard to see how Lincoln Chafee could win another election for governor without another multi-candidate perfect storm. That’s been true for a while, though – what made him decide?

The political environment certainly must have played a role: it was increasingly clear he couldn’t win. But Chafee, an optimist by nature, has been beaten down by a consistently difficult two-and-a-half years. He cited the “irrational negativity” of some in Rhode Island on Wednesday, and it’s true he has few allies – and many, many critics – in the state’s chattering class.

But Chafee has also been his own enemy at times, beating the drum for unpopular policies – a prime example being his 2011 budget proposal, with its huge sales-tax hike – and giving oxygen to sideshows like the “holiday tree” controversy, which he cited repeatedly today as a particular frustration.

(Indeed, GOP Chairman Mark Smiley quipped on Wednesday: “Although Lincoln Chafee does not believe in Christmas trees, his announcement that he is not seeking re-election is certainly an early Christmas gift for all Rhode Islanders who want real leadership in the State House.”)

Chafee has also struggled to figure out how to deal with the General Assembly. He always saw himself as the anti-Carcieri, someone who would build a productive working relationship with lawmakers. (“I’m not going to fight with the General Assembly,” he told me flatly in 2011.) In practice, that’s often left Chafee complaining about bills, then allowing them to become law anyway, as with the recent EDC legislation.

That may be why Chafee emphasized Wednesday that he strongly believes Rhode Islanders should call a constitutional convention when they’re asked whether to do so on next year’s ballot. The governor, who was a delegate to the 1986 convention, said he’s come to think that shifting the balance of power away from the legislative branch and toward the executive is one of the most important changes Rhode Island could make to improve policymaking. Watch for him to campaign hard for that next year.

Chafee’s supporters point to a number of accomplishments during his tenure, many of them under the radar. (Ironically, the most high-profile policy of his tenure is one associated with a different politician: the pension law.) He’s proud of the increase in education spending, the improved efficiency of the DMV, the end of the DOT’s debt habit, the passage of same-sex marriage, the 38 Studios lawsuit, the falling jobless rate, and the stabilization of Central Falls and other troubled cities. He’s stuck to his guns, and his principles.

Dave Kane, whose son died in the Station nightclub fire, recalled that Chafee was one of only two Rhode Island elected officials who helped secure the site for a permanent memorial. Kane said Wednesday, “I will never forget the compassion, understanding and support offered by this gentle and honorable man.”

Meanwhile, Chafee will remain the governor of Rhode Island for another 16 months. (Unless of course Obama gives him a job – hello, Gov. Elizabeth Roberts!) He spoke obliquely about that Wednesday, saying: “Obviously, it’s not just the time and energy that goes into a campaign but, as you know, if you’re looking at an election sometimes you make compromises that might not be made if you weren’t involved in a campaign.”

Which compromises did he have in mind? Could the last year-and-a-half of Chafee’s tenure be significantly different from the first two-and-a-half years? Will he buck organized labor – or be more supportive? Will he fight more with the General Assembly? Will he enact policies that don’t have widespread public support?

Looks like we’re about to find out.

• Related: Watch Lincoln Chafee’s entire Wednesday press conference (Sept. 4)

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