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.