Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island Governor and U.S senator, is perhaps the most surprising presidential candidate from either party. Chafee wasn’t on anyone’s list of potential challengers to Hillary Clinton until April, when he came out of relative political obscurity to blast Clinton for voting for the Iraq War while in Congress and declare that decision made her unfit to be president.
Clinton has acknowledged that vote was a mistake. But she need not worry about being defeated by Chafee because of that vote. He has virtually no chance of emerging as a serious rival to her.
Chafee is a huge underdog in part because of the strength of Clinton, who has consolidated support from the party’s elected officials, donors and other influential figures.
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And Chafee is unlikely to become the leading anti-Clinton candidate. His late start in touting himself as a 2016 hopeful means that many progressive activists who are wary of Clinton are already lining up behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Sanders and O’Malley only recently formally announced their candidacies, but they have been in effect campaigning for months.
And the 62-year-old Chafee has few roots in the progressive community looking for an alternative to Clinton. Chafee was first appointed to the U.S Senate in 1999 when he was a Republican, replacing his father John, who had held that seat for more than two decades. John Chafee was a moderate northeastern Republican, and his son followed in that tradition.
After winning a full six-year term in 2000, Lincoln Chafee opposed much of George W. Bush’s agenda, including being the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the Iraq War authorization.
He lost his reelection race to a Democrat in 2006. Chafee then switched from being a Republican to independent, endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, and was elected governor of Rhode Island two years later. He completed his political revolution in 2013, becoming a Democrat.
He opted against seeking reelection for governor in 2014.
Chafee’s time in office has been marked by liberal stands, from his war opposition to changing Rhode Island law as governor to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges.
But he is unlikely to capture the most liberal of activists, since Sanders has been a leading progressive in Congress for more than a decade.
And those looking for a more traditional candidate as an alternative to Clinton might first opt for O’Malley, who was twice elected in a fairly large state. Chafee’s ability as a politician is relatively untested, having won in tiny Rhode Island, which has only 1.1 million people.
Chafee though could have an intriguing role in this process: repeatedly reminding Democrats of what they view as Clinton’s original sin. The former first lady says, in explaining her Iraq war vote, that she was mislead by the Bush administration.
Chafee will argue he was receiving the same intelligence and voted against the war. And his move required political courage, with a president from his own party pushing the war and all of his Senate GOP colleagues backing it.
Sanders and O’Malley have so far soft-pedaled their criticism of Clinton. Chaffee has not. Referring to Clinton’s war vote, Chafee told the Washington Post in April, “It's a huge mistake and we live with broad, broad ramifications today — of instability not only in the Middle East but far beyond and the loss of American credibility.”
If Chafee bluntly attacks Clinton over Iraq in the candidate debates, he could put her on the defensive in a unique way.