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Smallest state could make political waves on November 2nd

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October 23, 2010

In Rhode Island, Independent candidate Lincoln Chafee has the lead

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony


PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island: Should Lincoln Chafee emerges as the victor on Election Night, he won't be the first Chafee to govern Rhode Island - his father once held the office - but he join a small club of governors not to belong to a major party.

In his previous political life as a Republican Senator, Chafee bucked his party's trend, standing out as one of two GOP Senators who voted against George W. Bush's tax cut and as the only Republican in the upper chamber to cast a ballot against the use of force in Iraq. Time and again, his votes on social issues put him far to the left of many Congressional colleagues and brought on opprobrium from the base. Labeled a Rockefeller Republican and a "R.I.N.O.," Chafee lost party support without doing enough to bring Democrats to his side.

He survived an intense 2006 primary against a far more conservative opponent but was unable to duplicate such success in the general election. It was the Democrat's man, Sheldon Whitehouse, who won in an election cycle that wrote an end to 12 years of Republican dominance in the United States Senate.

Chafee hinted at a partisan switch, a rumor he laid to rest when he in fact did officially re-register as an Independent in the summer of 2007. His February 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama, timed to hit just before Rhode Island's primary, made Chafee's divorce from the GOP final.

Settled into his new political identity, Chafee announced a gubernatorial run in January of 2010. Despite its tendency to support Democrats in Presidential elections, Rhode Island has long by governed by Republicans. Incumbent Donald Carcieri is term-limited and Democrats had pegged 2010 and the open race as a prime year to flip the seat. It's a strategy they've executed admirably, at least against the opponent they were expecting. Despite nominating John F. Robataille, a top aide to Carcieri, Rhode Island Republicans have been unable to capitalize on incumbency status and name recognition. Robataille is lagging in the polls, with recent surveys rarely putting him above 25%.

Outgoing Governor Carcieri's job performance is widely criticized among his constituents and President Obama, deeply unpopular elsewhere, earns approval ratings above 50% in the tiny state. 16 years of Republican governance have made the GOP into Rhode Island's status quo party in a year where such a position is distinctly unfavorable to electoral hopes. The race is quite simply between Chafee and the Democratic nominee, State Treasurer Frank T. Caprio. Effectively, the Republican is running as a minor party candidate along with Moderate Party nominee Ken Block, who is himself stuck in the single digits.

Both Caprio and Chafee have fluctuated in polling since February; Caprio has dipped below 30% and flirted with 40% while Chafee has ranged from just under one-third to a high of 39%. Negatives seem to strike the two equally, as both get unfavorable ratings from around half of Rhode Island's electorate.[1]

Late October polling was enough to convince Rasmussen to move the race into "Leans Independent." Similarly, the Rothenberg Political Report called the seat as a possible third-party pick-up at one point in the summer. The Cook Political Report has the race numbered as a toss-up for now and Congressional Quarterly echos the hesitation to make a prediction on the race. Pollster Nate Silver, who writes on FiveThirtyEight, officially makes it a toss-up, too, but he also gives Chafee a 50% chance at winning.[2] Real Clear Politics, which aggregates and weights poll data to give every race a spread, puts Chafee ahead by seven points.[3]

Arguably, Robataille's presence in the race and the small but significant vote share he'll pick up could hurt Caprio more than Chafee, as this is a race where the key Independent candidate is running to the left of the Democratic nominee. Polls have found that Chafee and Robataille both pick up substantial support from unaffiliated voters. Chafee is also siphoning nearly half the state's Democrats away from Caprio, another sign of the leftward tilt of his platform.

But Chafee is still running as an independent candidate in a country wedded to its major parties and used to running major elections with party backing. Chafee may be banking on his personal name recognition and the brand his family has built up during a century in Rhode Island's public life, Caprio, meanwhile, has the Democratic Governor's Association backing him up, with a prolonged attack campaign centered on Chafee's support for a plan the broaden the state sales tax.

A Chafee victory would likely mean a check on the state's legislature without actually electing a Republican. As the front runner in the lieutenant governor's race is a Democrat, the state would also have a split ticket in its executive. In a larger state, such a set-up would make for a fascinating re-districting year. A win for Chafee would certainly owe something to voters who are fed up with incumbents. Yet it would also be carefully pulled apart for any signs that the two party system is beginning to decline.

October 30th UPDATE:' Issuing final race predictions in the last week, the Rothenberg Political Report and Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball have also moved Rhode Island's race into a predicted win for Chafee.

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