Lincoln Chafee: A Party-Switcher Without Many Friends

Rhode Island governor's move was out of desperation.

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee speaks with a reporter while seated in the backseat of a vehicle, in South Kingstown, R.I., Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Beach cottages were destroyed, businesses were flooded and a quarter of the state was without power Tuesday after superstorm Sandy blew through Rhode Island.  (National Journal)

President Obama sounds delighted that Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee is switching parties to become a Democrat. But don't misinterpret Obama's official statement of congratulations to the former Republican senator as Democratic enthusiasm for his decision.

In fact, the reaction to his party-switch was downright muted from all Democratic comers. The Democratic Governors' Association responded with just one sentence of a non-endorsement: "We are excited to welcome Governor Chafee to the ranks of Democratic governors and look forward to enthusiastically supporting whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee in Rhode Island." The lack of support stems from an already-busy primary field likely to feature state Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.

And even though Obama offered his standard supportive statement, the reality is that the push for Chafee to become a Democrat was entirely his own doing, needing little outside support from the White House or any other Democratic group. The obligatory presidential comments, sent from the Democratic National Committee and not the White House, pale in comparison to the full-court press Obama officials used to persuade former Sen. Arlen Specter to switch parties in the runup to the 2010 midterms. The efforts also are muted in comparison to the Democratic courtship this year of former GOP Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is expected to run against vulnerable Gov. Rick Scott with full party support.

The difference: Chafee has no leverage. Specter looked like he would be the 60th Democratic vote to pass the president's agenda unfettered, so the White House was eager to play ball. Democrats have few alternatives to Crist in Florida, and they understand the importance of winning a big-state electoral battleground. Chafee, by contrast, is all but begging for party support. Without it, he'll have trouble winning a second term -- as a Democrat or an independent.

Facing weak approval ratings, Chafee is betting his best chance to win a second term comes from winning the Democratic nomination, not in a three-way general election. But his prospects of winning a contested primary are dependent on receiving official party support -- something unlikely to happen, as the DGA statement portended. Obama may be happy that Chafee formalized his relationship with Democrats, but don't expect any presidential appearances or television ads on Chafee's behalf come primary time.

Indeed, Chafee could find himself more alone as a Democrat than as an independent. Before, he could at least capitalize on the Bloomberg-like sheen he held as the only independent governor in the country, using the fuzzy language of bipartisanship to his advantage. Now he's just one of many Democrats in a gubernatorial crowd, seeking the nomination in a state where voters have already begun to tune him out.