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Lincoln Chafee

Out of the running Last modified: October 23, 2015

Lincoln Davenport Chafee is a former U.S. senator and governor from Rhode Island. He also served as the mayor of Warwick, R.I., prior to his start in national politics. He announced his candidacy for the White House in early June of 2015 at a previously scheduled and lightly attended speech on foreign policy at George Mason University.

Chafee’s tenure in office spans more than two decades, making him a relatively experienced candidate. His tenure also spans both political parties – he was a Republican until after he lost his 2006 U.S. Senate re-election campaign, when he became an independent. Later, as governor of Rhode Island, he joined the Democratic Party.

His views on most issues are relatively orthodox for the Democratic Party, including his votes against the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq invasion in the Senate. He was typically considered to be one of the most liberal Republicans in the Senate, perhaps the most. As governor he cut corporate taxes while seeking a sales tax increase, and has been a staunch proponent of Obamacare.

Chafee’s announcement took many by surprise, as he had left the Rhode Island governorship after a single term with poor approval ratings and an economic track record that is unimpressive. He lacks national name recognition, and his June 2015 announcement did not have the hallmark of a carefully planned event. He has lagged in fundraising and polls, barely registering in either.

While Chafee’s campaign is considered a long shot by most, he has the personal wealth needed to jump-start his campaign, which he appears to be centering on his vote against the Iraq invasion. In a small Democratic field with limited options, Chafee’s campaign could potentially attract enough support to make him a contender.

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Chafee was born in Rhode Island to Virginia Chafee (née Coates)1 and John Chafee, former governor and U.S. senator from Rhode Island.2

Chafee comes from a long line of notable political figures in Rhode Island. His father served as governor, U.S. senator and Secretary of the Navy. His great-great grandfather, Henry Lippett, was also governor of Rhode Island, while other relatives also served as U.S. senator and governor of Rhode Island.3

In high school he was a classmate of Jeb Bush at Phillips Academy Andover, a preparatory school in Massachusetts.4 He graduated from Brown University, where he was a wrestler, with a degree in classics and then spent time working as a farrier in Montana and at harness racetracks throughout the United States and Canada.5 He also worked in manufacturing from 1983 to 1990, including time at Cranston Print Works and Electric Boat.

Chafee served as the mayor of Warwick, R.I., from 1992-1999,6 until he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1999 to fill out the rest of his father’s term.7

After losing his Senate seat in 2006 to a Democratic challenger, Chafee served as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies.8 Chafee then ran for governor of Rhode Island in 2010 as an independent and won9 but did not seek a second term.10

He is married to Stephanie Chafee and they have three children: Louisa, Caleb and Thea.11 They live in Warwick.12

In 2006, Stephanie Chafee had an estimated personal worth of $60 million,13 and in 2005 Lincoln Chafee’s net worth was estimated at $51 million14 and was listed as one of Congress’ wealthiest members.15 Stephanie Chafee was Rhode Island’s first AIDS research nurse, and she is the co-founder of Rhode Island’s first free health services clinic that serves the needy. She is an advocate for health care causes.16

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Chafee started his political career as a Republican, but after leaving the Senate in 2007, he became an independent.17 In May 2013, he changed his party affiliation once again, this time becoming a member of the Democratic Party.18 Chafee has said, with a great deal of accuracy, that while his party affiliation may have changed, his policy views have remained consistent.19

Chafee did not support President George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004 and instead wrote in the name of George H.W. Bush, the sitting president’s father and former U.S. president,20 and he was the only Republican in the Senate who voted against the use of force in Iraq, both of which suggest a willingness to stand up against party leadership. He also voted against the Bush tax cuts in 200121 and 2003.22

Chafee received important endorsements from organized labor in his 2010 campaign, but he still supported significant government employee pension reforms bitterly opposed by public sector unions,23 who accused him of going back on his campaign promise to focus on new public employees in any pension reform.24

Aside from pension reform, Chafee made a number of other promises in his 2010 campaign for governor and he appears to have kept, or at least tried to keep, most of them, such as rescinding the state’s participation in the E-Verify system,25 simplifying taxes and improving the state budget’s sustainability,26] and cutting corporate and personal income taxes when the state economy improved.27

There were no major scandals connected to Chafee’s time in office, a substantial feat for any elected official in a state like Rhode Island with an entrenched political culture of corruption.28 Since jumping into the presidential race, Chafee has branded himself as the “scandal free” candidate.29 One Rhode Island journalist wrote that he “really does seem incorruptible” in an otherwise mocking article calling him “weird” and “a strange bird.”30

Politifact, a “fact checker” that attempts to assess whether candidates are generally truthful in their public statements, reviewed sixteen statements by Chafee during his time in office and found them to be “mixed,” with six considered either “true” or “mostly true,” a single “half true” statement, and eight ruled either “false” or “mostly false.”31 It should be noted that several of the “false” or “mostly false” rulings were questionable or dubious, or involved simple misstatements that his office quickly corrected or retracted. By and large, there is little to suggest Chafee is dishonest in his statements.

One political science professor at Brown University, which is located in Rhode Island, said “Most people think that Linc Chafee was an honest guy who was certainly interested in making the state better,” although she was highly critical of his leadership skills.32

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Chafee was originally appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill out the term of his father, who died in office. He won his first full term in 2000 by a margin of 57 percent to 41 percent.33 In 2006, he narrowly beat out a Republican challenger in the Republican primary before losing in the general election to Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent.34

Chafee was a member of the 2005 bipartisan “Gang of 14” who successfully negotiated a compromise to avoid the use of the “nuclear option” Senate filibuster by Senate leaders to end the ongoing filibuster of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.35

Chafee is not known to be a strong communicator,36 and campaigning is clearly not a strength for him. One reporter in a largely flattering article on Chafee relates the story about the first time Chafee ran for local office when “he went out to canvass neighborhoods but ended up sitting in his car instead, working up the courage to knock on doors.”37 His appearance in the first Democratic debate was largely ignored or ridiculed,38 and was mostly notable for his apparent admission that he didn’t understand what he was voting on when he voted to repeal the Glass-Steagall law separating investment and commercial banking.39

Chafee is well known to dislike fundraising and has relied extensively (but not primarily) on his personal wealth to fund his campaigns.40

While his time in office was largely without scandal, he found himself in several small controversies, such as referring to the State Capitol Christmas Tree as a “holiday tree,” and fighting federal prosecutors over whether they would seek the death penalty in a murder case, all of which ultimately limited his effectiveness in office. One liberal commentator noted of Chafee “He didn’t show a talent for marshalling public opinion, but he did show a talent for finding controversies that were distracting from his efforts to shape the economy.”41

A political science professor at Brown University, located in Rhode Island, summarized Chafee’s leadership skills by observing that “he’s not a great public communicator and he’s not interested in horse trading, and when you are governor in a state with a powerful legislature, you have to horse trade” and noted that people grew frustrated with Chafee because his time in office was “viewed as a wasted opportunity for the state of Rhode Island for four years. I think people will say he’s a nice guy, but they’re very disappointed that he didn’t step up.”42

In 2008, Chafee authored and published a book, Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President.43

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Between his tenures as U.S. senator and Rhode Island governor, Chafee has a mixed record on taxes. As senator he voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.44 He opposed eliminating the estate tax45 and supported increasing the top federal tax rate.46 He supported abolishing the so-called “marriage penalty” in the tax code.47 During his time as senator, the National Taxpayers Union gave him a grade of 46 percent or “satisfactory” based on his tax votes during his term.48

As governor, Chafee successfully fought to lower the state’s corporate tax rate from 9 to 7 percent (he originally sought a reduction to 6 percent).49 Chafee’s plan paid for the lower rate by eliminating tax incentives programs being used by a small number of companies within the state.50 The initial plan also hinged on Congress approving legislation that would allow states to collect sales tax from remote online retailers such as Amazon and eBay.51

The reduced corporate tax rate went into effect in January 2015,52 making Rhode Island’s corporate tax rate one of the lowest in the New England region.53

As governor, Chafee received a grade of B from the Cato Institute’s 2014 Fiscal Report Card on America’s Governors. He received this positive grade because he signed laws that reduced the corporate tax rate and abolished the franchise tax and reduced the estate tax in the state.54

As a senator, he supported reinstating “pay as you go” standards that required tax cuts to be matched with spending cuts in the budget.55


As a candidate for governor, Chafee was endorsed by several labor unions.56 As governor, he was faced with significant state pension issues and joined the state treasurer to pass a major overhaul of the state’s pension system that was opposed by organized labor. The plan was passed by the legislature in 2011.57


He signed into law a bill increasing Rhode Island’s minimum wage to $9 an hour58 and favors raising the federal minimum wage as well,59 although he has said he favors allowing different minimums to apply in rural and urban settings.60

Energy & Environment

Chafee supported a ban on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), increased fuel mileage standards on SUVs and reducing greenhouse gases, including establishing a cap-and-trade program.61 As governor he signed a law to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050. He also supported making the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a cabinet-level agency,62 and has announced his support for the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a dramatic expansion of regulatory authority that targets the energy industry for carbon dioxide reductions.63

On his presidential campaign website, he notes that during his term as governor of Rhode Island, the state added an unprecedented amount of open space and parkland.64


As a U.S. senator, Chafee supported various free trade initiatives and agreements, including agreements with Singapore,65 Chile,66 the Andean nations67 and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).68 He also supported permanent normal trade relations status with China and received a score of 92 percent from the libertarian think tank CATO Institute for his pro-free-trade voting record.69 As governor he signed a letter supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership70 and following the conclusion of the deal in October 2015 he announced he favored its passage.71

Health Care

Chafee has been a strong supporter of Obamacare. When the Democratic state legislature in Rhode Island refused to pass legislation authorizing an exchange, he signed an executive order creating the exchange.72

Chafee supported the re-importation of pharmaceuticals to the U.S. from Canada,73 where drugs are less expensive due to price controls. He also voted to allow Medicare to directly set prices on prescription drugs with manufacturers,74 and he voted several times for the creation of a prescription drug benefit in Medicare, although he eventually voted against the 2003 GOP plan.75 He also voted to cap medical malpractice non-economic damages at $250,000.76

Entitlements & Welfare

On Social Security, Chafee has supported reforming the program to allow individual accounts, dubbed “privatization” by both advocates and critics.77 As a senator, Chafee supported allowing churches to deliver welfare services and called for the creation of a National Affordable Housing Trust that would funnel federal funds to state and local governments to build low-income housing.78 He also supports providing tax incentives for people to own homes in distressed areas.79


Chafee favors immigration reform allowing illegal immigrants to have a path to citizenship80 and specifically cited the 2005 legislation crafted by Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy as the model for what he would like to see passed.81 Shortly after his swearing in as governor, Chafee rescinded an executive order that instituted E-Verify in the state and required local police to cooperate with immigration officials. He stated that it has caused needless anxiety among the state’s Latino community and has not demonstrated any progress in addressing illegal immigration.82


In 2014, Chafee made $210,000 in grants available to support the development and marketing of Rhode Island-grown agricultural products. The grants would be available to farmers and members of the seafood industry.83 As a senator, he opposed subsidies to the Hawaiian sugar industry – including loan programs and price supports. However, he did vote in favor of supplying more than $1 billion to the Farm Service Agency and Agricultural Research Service. He also co-sponsored a bill that would reduce quotas and loan rates for peanut products.84 Speaking to an agricultural reporter, he said he favored allowing scientists to continue to experiment with genetically modified organisms in food but also cautioned that the public should be able to have input regarding relevant ethical issues.85

Banking & Finance

In the Senate Chafee voted for the Sarbanes-Oxley law that imposed new regulations on the accounting practices at publicly traded firms.86 He also voted to repeal the depression-era Glass-Steagall law separating commercial and investment banking, although when questioned about the vote during the first Democratic debate he suggested he did not understand what he was voting on at the time because he was new to the Senate and his father had just died.87

Corporate Welfare

On corporate welfare Chafee has a mixed record. He attempted to eliminate the state film tax credit in his first budget88 but was unsuccessful.89 He was also highly critical of the state’s approval of $75 million in loan guarantees for a startup videogame maker, which ultimately the state had to repay when the company went bankrupt.90 There is little suggestion that he has a principled opposition to corporate welfare however, as he has advocated for the wind energy industry to locate in Rhode Island and stated publicly that “Cape Wind [developer of off-shore wind farms] would probably need support in Rhode Island for its projects,”91 presumably meaning substantial subsidies. He has voiced support for the Renewable Fuels Standard, which mandates the blending of renewables into fuels, but worked to limit subsidies and preferences for sugar producers while in the U.S. Senate.92

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International Relations

Chafee has made foreign policy one of his primary focus areas in his possible bid for president. He notes in a Washington Post article, “I want to highlight the importance of more friends and fewer enemies.”93

He said improving relations with Russia is important and suggested bringing Russia into the European Union would help to end the Ukrainian crisis.94 He has been supportive of the Obama administration’s improving relations with Cuba95 and has said he would try to likewise improve relations with Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia,96 nations that are allies of the dictators Fidel and Raul Castro. He has defended the rule of Venezuelan Hugo Chavez, noting the dictator was “elected by the people… it was a political revolution” and criticized sanctions placed on the regime.97

Chafee has made it clear he opposes what is generally called a neoconservative foreign policy, going so far as to oppose President George W. Bush’s appointment of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations.98

As senator, Chafee served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Middle East Subcommittee.99 He serves as an adviser to J Street, a nonprofit organization that describes itself as a “non-profit liberal advocacy group based in the United States whose stated aim is to promote American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Israel-Palestinian conflicts peacefully and diplomatically.”100

War on Terror

Chafee has called for an end to drone strikes101 and criticized broad anti-terror wiretapping authority,102 although as a senator he voted to pass103 and reauthorize104 the Patriot Act. He has said he would have all charges against Edward Snowden dismissed,105 explaining in the first Democratic debate that “[t]he American government was acting illegally. That’s what the federal courts have said; what Snowden did showed that the American government was acting illegally for the Fourth Amendment. So I would bring him home.”106 Snowden leaked to the public classified information about U.S. anti-terror surveillance efforts and later fled to China and then Russia.

He was one of 23 U.S. senators to oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq107 and the only Republican to do so.108 He’s been quoted as saying that his interest in running for president in 2016 is, in part, because he believes “the next president should not be someone who supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.”109 Although a critic of the Iraq invasion and war, he voted in June 2006 against establishing a July 2007 deadline for U.S. forces to leave.110

Asked in April 2015 how he would deal with ISIS and whether U.S. ground troops might be needed, Chafee suggested that building alliances and adopting strategy of containment like the U.S. did in the Cold War was the key to addressing that challenge.111 He supported the Obama administration’s negotiations and discussions with Iran over its nuclear weapons program112 and praised the deal that was reached.113

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Judiciary & Crime

While a Republican member of the U.S. Senate, Lincoln Chafee was a part of the so-called “Gang of 14” bipartisan group of senators who, in May 2005, forged a compromise to end the Democrat filibuster of George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. The agreement allowed the Democrats to retain the possible use of the filibuster of a judicial nominee in “extraordinary circumstance” while allowing an up or down vote in the U.S. Senate on three of Bush’s most conservative judicial nominees: Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen, and William Pryor.114

Chafee voted to confirm Bush’s nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court, as well as to elevate him to the position of chief justice.115 He voted against Samuel Alito, and was the only Republican to do so.116 However, he did vote to end debate on Alito’s nomination, helping to end any chance of a Democrat filibuster of the nomination.117 Additionally, Chafee only announced his intention to vote against Alito after GOP leadership had secured enough votes to confirm the nomination.118

While governor of Rhode Island, Chafee made three Senate-confirmed appointments to the bench: Joseph A. Montalbano, the Democratic former president of the state senate, and Richard A. Licht, a former Democratic state senator and lieutenant governor, both to the state’s Superior Court, and Patricia A. Asquith to the Rhode Island Family Court.119

Chafee has publicly praised the Supreme Court’s rulings in King v. Burwell,120 praising his state’s rollout of their Obamacare exchange in the process, and Obergefell v. Hodges.121 He has called for Citizens United v. FEC to be overturned.122

Chafee believes that DNA testing should be required for all federal executions123 and he opposes the death penalty.124

Free Speech & Religious Liberty

Chafee was only one of three Republicans to vote against a proposed Constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.125 He has said the Citizens United decision recognizing free speech rights for corporations, unions, and other organizations should be overturned,126 and he voted for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance restrictions.127

Chafee has frequently praised Rhode Island’s founder Roger Williams for his views on religious liberty and tolerance,128 and a bill he championed and signed on marriage included strong protections for religious liberty.129


Chafee has supported school vouchers and charter schools in the past,130 although more recently he has expressed skepticism about charter schools.131 He helped push through the renewal of the state commissioner of education who drew fire from many teachers for her support for strong student testing programs.132 As governor he increased funding for the University of Rhode Island and the state’s community colleges, froze tuition in higher education, and increased state aid to local schools.133

In the U.S. Senate Chafee did not support increasing the deductions for college tuition from $500 to $1000134 and did not support Education Savings Accounts.135 He voted for the No Child Left Behind legislation.136 To date he has not taken a position on Common Core.


Chafee has staked out positions in favor of states’ rights concerning marriage137 and custody of criminals held by the state and also sought by the federal government,138 but his voting record suggests states’ rights was simply a useful tool to support other issues, and he favors federal authority over state and local government.139

As governor he signed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which if adopted by enough states would effectively eliminate the electoral college in the election of the president.140 He has also praised the fact that every state has equal representation in the U.S. Senate, boosting the influence of rural constituencies like farmers.141

Social Issues

Chafee campaigned for governor of Rhode Island on a platform that included making same-sex marriage legal in the state,142 and signed it into law in Rhode Island in 2013.143 While in the U.S. Senate he said the issue should be decided by each state individually144 but later praised the Supreme Court’s decision establishing same-sex marriage as a constitutional right.145

Chafee is pro-choice and has a rating of 90 percent from NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League).  He opposed the partial birth abortion ban as a U.S. senator146 and voted against making it a criminal offense to harm a fetus while committing another crime.147 He also does not believe that abortion matters should be decided at the state level,148 and says Roe v. Wade was correctly decided.149

Chafee is an advocate of stricter gun control laws. As governor he supported a ban on assault weapons in Rhode Island, and in the U.S. Senate he voted against legislation prohibiting lawsuits against gun manufacturers if a weapon they manufactured was used in a crime.150 He received an F grade from the National Rifle Association.151

According to numerous reports, Chafee favors affirmative action.152

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Chafee’s vulnerabilities are modest but not insignificant. A 2013 analysis by The Business Journals ranked Rhode Island 42 out of 45 states in job creation – a very poor score for the state153 and a difficult, dubious achievement to explain when campaigning on a platform of helping the middle class.

Chafee left office politically unpopular in Rhode Island, a part of the reason he did not seek re-election in 2014. By April of 2014 his job approval rating was a dismal 21.2 percent.154

While some highlight his evolution through the political party system – from Republican to Independent to Democrat – as possibly problematic, Chafee has addressed his party affiliation issue several times since his first change in party status nearly a decade ago. His speech at the 2012 Democratic Party Convention speech and position as one of 35 co-chairs of Obama’s re-election campaign should provide him the bona fides needed to assure the Democratic voters he is now one of them.

His dislike for campaign fundraising is well known155 and he has often relied on his personal wealth to fund previous campaigns. This is problematic in an election cycle that expects to top $5 billion156 when all is said and done, although Chafee is well positioned to put several million dollars into the campaign at early stages to help get his campaign going.

Like some of the other potential presidential candidates, Chafee was born and raised in privilege. While he has a voting history and rhetoric that attacks Wall Street and the rich, he may have a tough time gaining the support of the average American in a campaign cycle that will be heavy on populist messages.

Finally, Chafee’s run for the White House does not appear to have been planned out long in advance, as his surprise announcement and lack of early staff suggest an organization that could struggle to execute a campaign plan that might propel him into contention. He is not a natural politician or effective communicator, which should also be regarded as vulnerabilities.

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