Staff Columnist

Lincoln Chafee is coming back to Iowa, with yet another party affiliation

Democratic presidential candidate Lincoln Chafee gives a thumbs up after dropping out of the presidential race, at the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Leadership Forum’s 22nd annual conference in Washington October 23, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Democratic presidential candidate Lincoln Chafee gives a thumbs up after dropping out of the presidential race, at the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Leadership Forum’s 22nd annual conference in Washington October 23, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

The most interesting candidate from the 2016 presidential race has a new political home, and he’s making plans to visit Iowa next year in what appears to be another shot at the White House.

Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s campaign last cycle was widely mocked by political elites. He appeared in just one Democratic presidential debate, where his most memorable TV moment was telling the CNN moderator that he was being “being a little rough” in criticizing Chafee’s vote in the U.S. Senate to repeal banking regulations.

Chafee dropped out of the race fewer than two weeks after the debate. Now he’s back in politics, under a new political banner.

Chafee changed his official residence to Wyoming this year, and took the opportunity to update his party registration after being a Republican, and independent and a Democrat at various times in his political career. Chafee said the Libertarian Party’s values aligned most closely with his own.

“Anti-war, anti-deficit, in favor of the 4th Amendment and gay rights, anti-capital punishment. That’s me,” Chafee told me in a recent phone interview.

Chafee is scheduled to attend the Libertarian Party of Iowa’s state convention next February, alongside at least three declared Libertarian presidential candidates. For now, Chafee says he’s only “getting involved and meeting new people,” but he has made zero effort to refute media speculation that he’s planning another bid for the presidency, this time as part of a third party.

The two leading leftist candidates for president — Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — have both faced questions about their loyalty to the Democratic Party. Warren was a Republican until the 1990s, while Sanders has identified as and run for office as an independent for most of his life. Another Democratic candidate, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, has been accused by party elites of being a Republican plant.

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On the Republican side, President Donald Trump has previously been registered as a Democrat and an independent, while donating to candidates from both major parties. One of his challengers for the 2020 GOP nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, was a Libertarian Party candidate for vice president last cycle.

Trump challenger is part of great American party-switching tradition

But nobody running for president has as peculiar a political history as Chafee, who has run for state or national office as a Republican, a Democrat and an independent.

Chafee was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1999 as a Republican after the seat was left vacant by his own father’s death. He won reelection as a Republican the next year, served one full term, and was defeated in 2006 by a Democratic challenger.

After leaving the Senate, Chafee registered as an independent and endorsed his former Senate colleague Barack Obama for president in 2008.

In 2010, Chafee was elected governor of Rhode Island as an independent, with a narrow plurality over the Republican and Democratic candidates, making him the country’s only no-party governor at the time.

As governor, Chafee switched again to be a Democrat, in part because there was no national political support for independent governors. However, he was seen as a vulnerable incumbent and ultimately decided not to seek reelection.

Chafee is quick to point out that his registration has varied, but his position on important issues has stayed the same: “I have not waffled or changed.”

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To the extent Chafee is discussed in national politics at all these days, he is defined by his quirks — the poor debate performance, the unauthorized “Lincoln Chafee’s Dank Meme Stash” page on Facebook, or his weirdly intense dedication to transitioning the United States to the metric system, to name a few.

It’s an unfortunate and unfair characterization for a political figure who is saying something different from anyone else on the national stage. His “prosperity through peace” platform from 2016 emphasized a realistic foreign policy, not so hellbent on policing the world and raising tension with foes.

Chafee hopes polarizing and unpopular candidates nominated by the major parties in 2020 will propel a third-party candidate to greater success.

“This 2020 has potential to be very, very unique depending on who the Democrats nominate. Certainly, President Trump has his base core, but with the daily chaos … I think the potential is going to there for something to be very different,” he said.

Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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