By Annie Linskey
May 30 (Bloomberg) -- Governor Lincoln Chafee, a Republican turned independent, plans to seek re-election in Rhode Island next year as a Democrat, the state’s biggest political party.
Christian Vareika, a spokesman, said the governor plans to make the formal affiliation switch today at Warwick City Hall.
Top Democrats embraced the 60-year-old leader’s decision.
“I’m delighted to hear that Governor Chafee is joining the Democratic Party,” President Barack Obama said in a statement released yesterday by the Democratic National Committee. “I enjoyed working with Linc when he was a Republican in the United States Senate, and I look forward to continuing that collaboration.”
The former Republican U.S. senator from the Ocean State served as a co-chairman of Obama’s re-election campaign last year. While almost half of Rhode Island voters are independent, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 4-to-1, and the party dominates the state legislature. Chafee said in an April interview he was considering a switch to seek re-election.
“Being a solo practitioner, as an independent, I enjoy the status,” he said. “But the practical realities sometimes are reason to think about options.”
A Brown University poll in February showed just 26 percent of voters approved of Chafee’s job performance, the lowest rating of any U.S. governor, according to the New York Times. The Feb. 21-23 survey of 593 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
“Looking at the governor’s policies and principles, they align well with the Democratic Party,” Vareika said by telephone. “It was not a quick decision.”
Republicans said Chafee’s move was purely political.
“Saddled with the worst approval rating of any governor and a difficult path to re-election, Lincoln Chafee flip-flopped again today,” Phil Cox, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said yesterday in a statement. “This was a decision based purely on politics, not policy.”
Joining the Democratic Party won’t be enough to guarantee Chafee gets its 2014 nomination, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the Cook Political Report in Washington.
“How he proves his Democratic credentials” will be key for the governor, Duffy said. “He needs to prove to voters he is an honest-to-God Democrat.”
In April, Chafee signed a bill making same-sex marriage legal -- the Brown poll showed 60 percent of voters supported the move. Rhode Island was the last of the six New England states to allow such weddings.
Chafee also signed into law a package of pension changes in 2011 that will delay retirement for state employees and offer them 401(k)-type savings plans that don’t provide guaranteed benefits. Union leaders, a key constituency in the Democratic primary, have sued to prevent the measure from taking effect.
The pension bill was authored by Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo, a Democrat who is a likely 2014 candidate for governor. A former venture-capital fund manager, she had a 56 percent approval rating in the Brown poll.
Rhode Island union leaders have directed much of their anger about the law at Raimondo, picketing outside a convention where she gave a keynote speech in March. Chafee backed continuing mediation between the state and public-worker unions.
Providence Mayor Angel Taveras may also challenge the governor in the Democratic primary. The Brown poll put his approval rating at almost 64 percent.
Chafee served in the Senate from 1999 to 2007, after he lost the seat to a Democrat in 2006. He switched to independent in 2007, citing the Republican Party’s turn to the right.