Independents Day: Former GOP Senator Bucks the Trend in Rhode Island Gov Race


Even as Tea Party fervor spreads across the country, one former Republican senator, Lincoln Chafee, is looking to revitalize centrism and make history in his home state of Rhode Island by becoming the first independent governor in the state's history.

If history is any guide, Chafee faces a tough road. Rhode Island has never elected a governor running on the Independent ticket. Even though the state is overwhelmingly blue, only one of the last four governors has been a Democrat.

Most polls show a neck-and-neck race between Democrat Frank Caprio and Chafee, considered to be the most liberal candidate on the ballot.

What Chafee has going for him is a strong base of support and the backing of a family that has a long history in Rhode Island politics. Chafee's father, John, a Republican, served both as governor and U.S. senator.

Chafee may be somewhat of a Republican refugee but he served more than seven years in the Senate and left with an approval rating of 63 percent, especially high for a losing incumbent. He's also separated himself from the pack with an unusual stance -- raise taxes.

Chafee supports a 1 percent sales tax on items that currently are exempt from the state's 7 percent sales tax such as groceries, prescription medicine, clothing and shoes. In a state with a staggering budget deficit and an unemployment rate of 11.6 percent, above the national average, Chafee's opponents have seized on his proposals.

But the former senator argues that an increase in sales tax wouldn't adversely impact economic growth.

"Candidate Chafee has been kind of a maverick, as he often times is," said Francis J. Leazes Jr., a professor at Rhode Island College. "He's trying to talk straight to the people ... but he also wants to bring openness and he's positioned himself as the candidate who is least beholden to the insiders in the statehouse, which has been a big issue in this campaign."

Chafee quietly split from the Republican Party in 2007 after a loss to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. In a brutal primary and election, Chafee was painted as a Bush supporter, though he often diverged from his party, supporting abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Chafee was the only GOP senator to vote against the Iraq war.

"As the party has moved collectively to the right, it has displaced many ... and put a strain on people like [Chafee and] Olympia Snowe in Maine," said Maureen Moakley, professor and chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Rhode Island. "Republicanism traditionally defined in New England is a very different thing than what you get in the South and other parts of the country."

Former Republican Lincoln Chafee Runs as Independent in Governor's Race

Chafee often has lamented the decline of moderate Republicans. In an interview with the Associated Press earlier this month, he pointed to the loss of Mike Castle in the Delaware Senate primaries as an example of a competent lawmaker losing his seat in an unrealistic purity test.

"If those people are going to control the Republican Party, good luck," he warned. "You'll have a tough time getting into the majority. Ever."

Moderate Republicans argue that there's still a place for those like Chafee, even though more and more GOP leaders are being subjected to a purity test or being labeled "RINO" -- Republican in name only.

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