Lincoln Chafee Considering Leaving GOP

Lincoln Chafee is considering leaving the Republican Party after his defeat Tuesday.

Two days after losing a bid for a second term in an election seen as a referendum on President Bush and the Republican Party, Sen. Lincoln Chafee said he was unsure whether he’d remain a Republican. “I haven’t made any decisions. I just haven’t even thought about where my place is,” Chafee said at a news conference Thursday when asked whether he would stick with the Republican Party or switch to be an independent or Democrat.

When asked if his comments meant he thought he might not belong in the Republican Party, he replied: “That’s fair.”

Chafee, 53, is the most liberal Republican in the Senate and was the sole Senate Republican to vote against the war in Iraq. That was not enough to save his seat against the winner, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, who shared many of Chafee’s views but was a member of the dominant party in a state where Democrats far outnumber Republicans.

When asked whether he felt that his loss may have helped the country by switching control of power in Congress, he replied: “To be honest, yes.” “The people have spoken all across America. They want the Democrats and Republicans to work together,” Chafee added. “I think the president now is going to have to talk to the Democrats. I think that’s going to be good for America.”

The cynical of us might observe that this has been obvious some time and that he is the poster boy for the term “Republican in Name Only.” But that’s only because the party has become much more Southern over the last generation, especially since Ronald Reagan.

A lifelong Republican who succeeded his father, the late John Chafee, in the U.S. Senate, Chafee said he waged a lonely campaign to try to bring the party to the middle. He described attending weekly Thursday lunches with fellow Republican senators and standing up to argue his point of view, often alone. “There were times walking into my caucus room where it wasn’t fun,” he said.

Chafee said he stuck with the party in large part because it allowed him to bring federal dollars home to Rhode Island. He said he did not regret not switching parties before the election because he felt it kept him in the best position to help Rhode Island to remain with what was then the majority party. He also described himself as a loyal Rhode Island Republican, and said he didn’t want to communicate that he was suddenly “flying the coop.” He said he worked to build the party since he was a child, when his father first won elected office when he was 3 years old.

While I am less socially conservative and more libertarian than the current Republican platform, I’m well to the right of Chafee on most issues. I supported him in the primaries and the general election, though, because he was the best chance we had of keeping his seat in the Republican coalition. While he and Whitehouse will likely vote almost identically on key issues, Chaffee was a vote for Republican committee chairmen and Leadership and his opponent was not.

What attracted me to Chafee was what caused the majority of Rhode Islanders to vote against him despite his able service. Given their political preferences, it was absolutely the right choice.

The Chafees are what were once termed “Rockefeller Republicans.” That used to be the mainstream of the party. That ideology is now much more at home in the Democratic Party, just as the old Southern Democrat view is now more aligned with the GOP. As those old line Democrats drifted over to the Republican party over the last quarter century or so, they would say “I’m not leaving my party; my party has left me.” Chafee can reasonably say the same thing.

The problem for the GOP, though, is that it will have a difficult time regaining its status as a majority party if it can’t appeal to the populations of places like Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine. Since the South is now solidly in the Republican camp, there’s no more low hanging fruit. And immigration and migration are eroding their hold in places like Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, meaning even the Solid South is unlikely to remain that way.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2006, Congress, Political Theory, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    The unbeatable Republican ticket for ’08: Bloomberg/Chafee

  2. Anderson says:

    I never saw Chafee before last week, & have no clue how anyone with that hair could’ve stayed Republican so long.

    Down here in Mississippi, my Republican boss reacts to the elections by imagining a Giuliani/Rice ticket. “Giuliani can’t get nominated,” I told him, preferring to leave aside what a dingbat G. is. His response was that the evangelicals would hold their nose & vote for G. rather than lose in 2008.

  3. SoloD says:

    The GOP now holds only 1 House seat in all of New England (or will in January). Except for 1 of the NH seats, these are seats that will probably stay in Democratic hands for a while.

    After 94, there was lots of hand wringing about how the Democratic Party had lost the South. Now we are beginning to see the same thing about the GOP and the Northeast. The Democrats were able to open up their “tent” to include some Southern Dems, at least to stay competitive in places like NC, TN, FL. Will the GOP do the same, or will they seek more conservative purity.

  4. spencer says:

    The interesting question is what happens to the West that in many ways is closer to the old Rockefeller Republicans then the new republicans.

    If the Western states move to the dems that only leaves the reps the old south. In that case they would almost certainly be a permanent minority.

    I have a friend with very good political judgement who has argued for two years that Hillary will be the next president because she can win the western states.

  5. I’m not sure I agree with you on the “no low hanging fruit”. Turning Louisiana to a republican senator in 2008 is not exactly low hanging fruit (given incumbency) but it is doable. Look at the make up of the house delegation (5 of 7 GOP) and what that foretells.

    The North east is shrinking population wise. All of those democrats are going to have to fit into a smaller sandbox for the 2012 election after the next census. The bigger question to me is for the GOP to shore up the west and make inroads into the Midwest.

  6. SoloD says:


    You are right about the Northeast shrinking, but those voters are going somewhere else, which explains why places like NoVa, Arizona, NC, and Colorado are becoming more receptive to the Democratic message.

    Meanwhile, the GOP becomes more beholden to the social conservative (broadly read as Southern”) voters, which opens things up with the more libertarian voters out west.

  7. James Joyner says:

    John: And, while migration out of the Northeast decreases their House delegation and thus Electoral College power, all those states will continue to have two Senators with the resultant Electoral Votes.

  8. Tano says:

    Its not just New England. You can extend that down through the mid-Atlantic, to about a few dozen miles south of the Potomac (and throw in Richmond). The West is getting ever bluer – I think that AZ, NV, and CO may become quite blue over the next few years, to go along with NM and the coastal states. The greatest danger of all for the GOP is to see the Great Lakes states become as permanently blue as the East.

    The danger is that the GOP becomes restricted to the old South and the relatively empty Plains states, which would certainly make them a permanent minority. The crux of the problem is, as always, the social religious conservatism of the South – the great albatross around the neck of this country since forever. When the South was Dem, the Dems could win by including in their alliance the urban working class of the north and midwest – the faction that eventually dominated the party. I dont see any solidly Republican faction that can complement the Southern right in todays GOP – most other parts of the GOP coalition are open to persuasion by the Dems.

    America remains a relatively socially libertarian country, and if the GOP relies too much on its proto-theocrats, it has no hope.

  9. DL says:

    Just what should the GOP give up to appeal to the majority? Why not just pay off all special interest groups to get their vote – the blacks, the gays, the unions, the illegals, the ACLU members, the abortionists, the eco-fraud climate scientists, big business, the single women, the Pacifists, the One Worlders, the leftist educators, the native Americans, don’t forget CAIR and the Terrorists.

    It is essential that above all, we have a majority and win. What you stand for is after all, irrelevant!

  10. superdestroyer says:

    The Republicans can quickly become an irrelevant organization and the US can quickly become a one party state.

    The first sign is when the Republican give up trying to have a party structure in some state like Vermont, Mass., or RI.

    The second sign will be when the Democrats get 60 seats in the Senate. Image in January 2009 with Hillary Clinton as President and the Democrats have 60 seats in the Senate. Do you think that Jim Webb will vote with the Democratic leadership or with his principles.

    The third sign will be Congress passing either public funding of elections and/or some kind of McCain-Feingold II that will limit “attack ads.”

    If will not take long for any ambitious person interested in politics to determine that to be a Republican is to be irreverent.

    The long term question should be what will the US be like as a single party state.

  11. Michael says:

    The point being made isn’t that the GOP should sell out to special interests, it’s that the GOP has sold out to southern evangelicals, and abandoned their libertarian minded base.

    But then again, you seem to be glad that the GOP decided to do this, so I guess it’s been working out pretty well for you.

  12. just me says:

    I don’t think the US is going to go for one party rule for long from the democrats either, I suspect they will stick out even less time than they did with the GOP.

    I think it is way too soon to determine that the GOP is irrelevant, in case you didn’t notice, most of the races were landslide win races, several of them were within a few thousand votes.

  13. geezer says:

    Chafee’s loss? One of the brightest spots of Tuesday night. As for the NE GOP, it’s they who have the work to do; ain’t none of us out here can do it for them.

    That goes for every city, county, district and state from coast to coast. This was a national drubbing, in spite of a vibrant economy and (so far) successful protection of the homeland since 9/11. Count up how many of our losers and few winners kept Dubya at arm’s length–and remember them 2 years from now. Giuliani was one of the few to campaign tirelessly, yet never distanced himself from the President regardless of where he differed with him. That man, and anyone else with similar loyalty and principles, will have my vote in ’08.

    It’s only been 3 days, and I’m already sick to death of hearing about how it was Iraq, corruption, overspending or failure to adhere to the Contract With America crowd of ’94. Bullshit. The Dems were organized, stayed on message, moved to the center with candidates more similar to ours in years, and campaigned as one. We carped, found fault with our leaders for this reason or that, and got what we deserved. From Peggy Noonan to Ann Coulter to now Rush himself, we Republicans just can’t seem to stand being in the majority without kicking the top dog for being ideologically impure.

    Talk to me about conservative principles while Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Charlie Rangel, John Dingell, Harry Reid, Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy lecture us for the next 2 years, perhaps more. Yeah, that’ll make the rest of us listen.

    While the purists and fixers are at it, let them explain why RR chose Lowell Weicker, a lib, as his running mate in ’76 before the Repub convention. Why did he choose a non-ideological blue-blood like GHWB in ’80? “Voodoo economics,” indeed. It turned out OK because we ALL wanted a bigger tent, and the ideas fit in that tent. So the fix now is to make the f’ng tent smaller?! Gimme a break.

    Conservatives right now remind me of a joke I heard in Preacher School back in the 70s. A guy’s being shown around heaven, and asks about this one group who’s shouting, dancing and speaking in tongues. “That’s the Pentecostals.” They come upon another group, praising the Lord in sync with a raucous band. “Yup, that’s the Southern Baptists.” As they come around a corner, they see a group huddled together and glowering at everyone else. The new guy asks: “Who the heck are they?” The guide answers: “Keep your voice down…that’s the Church of Christ, but they think they’re the only ones up here.”