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.

"I think that there's actually a quiet majority out there of people who are much more in the middle and support moderate progressive Republicans. They just don't have the microphone," said Mark McKinnon, adviser to former President George W. Bush. "There's a huge support for people that reflect the middle of America, people like Lincoln Chafees and Olympia Snowes and [Democrat] Evan Bayhs -- what we call centrist Republicans. That's where 60 percent of America is ideologically."

The Tea Party movement has emerged as a force in Rhode Island politics, but their numbers have yet to translate into votes.

In a poll released Tuesday by WPRI TV and pollster Joe Fleming, GOP candidate John F. Robitaille only garnered 19 percent support, while Caprio was leading Chafee by a 3 percentage point margin, 33-30. The poll was conducted Sept. 22-26 between 500 likely voters. Other recent polls have shown similar results, with either Caprio or Chafee in the lead by a slim margin.

Caprio has an upper hand when it comes to fundraising and also an endorsement from Bill Clinton. But Chafee has his own band of supporters, and he has the endorsement of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"The race looks like a toss-up at this point," said Fleming, and the real momentum is only beginning to develop, with both sides launching negative campaign ads in the last week. "The race is just heating up right now."

Chafee is one of a handful of high-profile gubernatorial candidates running as independents, others being Tom Horner in Minnesota, Tim Cahill in Massachusetts and former Democrat Eliot Cutler, running for governor of Maine.

Rhode Island is one of two states where the independent candidate for governor has been surging in the polls, the other being Minnesota. Unlike Rhode Island, however, independents have a strong record of success in Minnesota. Professional wrestler Jesse Ventura won the governorship there in 1999 despite trailing in the polls.

There have been no independent governors since Ventura left office in 2003.

Read more about the Minnesota race.