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Lincoln Chafee just launched his presidential campaign. But who is Lincoln Chafee?

Lincoln Chafee speaks at the Democratic National Convention in 2012, a few months before he became a Democrat.
Lincoln Chafee speaks at the Democratic National Convention in 2012, a few months before he became a Democrat.
Alex Wong / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.
  1. Lincoln Chafee, a former Rhode Island governor and senator, announced Wednesday that he's running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
  2. Chafee was a Republican during his 1999–2007 stint in the US Senate and won his state's 2010 gubernatorial election as an independent. He first joined the Democratic Party in 2013, during his one term as governor.
  3. In his announcement speech, he said his agenda would focus on "education, infrastructure, health care, environmental stewardship, and a strong middle class."
  4. On foreign affairs, he stressed the importance of good judgment, and emphasized that he had voted against authorizing the Iraq War in 2002. (He was the only Senate Republican do so.) He said he learned early not to trust the Bush administration and "the so-called neocons."
  5. Chafee also said in his speech that Edward Snowden should be allowed to return home, and that the United States should move to the metric system. "Let's join the rest of the world and go metric," he said. "It will help our economy."

Who is Lincoln Chafee?

Chafee is from a prominent Rhode Island political family. His father, John Chafee, served as governor of Rhode Island in the 1960s and as a senator for nearly 23 years until his death in 1999. Lincoln — then the mayor of Warwick, and also a Republican — was appointed to replace him.

But the national GOP was moving further to the right, and Lincoln never fit in with them. As a senator, he repeatedly clashed with the Bush White House, voting against Bush's two big tax cut packages, the Iraq War, and the confirmation of Justice Samuel Alito. The conservative publication Human Events dubbed him the number one RINO (Republican in name only) in the country. Still, Chafee's party label tied him too closely to the unpopular GOP, and Sheldon Whitehouse defeated him in the 2006 Democratic wave year.

Chafee quit the GOP to become an independent in 2007 — which set the stage for his political comeback in 2010, when he won Rhode Island's governorship. But with the state's economy and unemployment rate quite bad, Chafee's popularity dropped — two years in, he was one of the most unpopular governors in the country.

In what was widely interpreted as an attempt to revive his political fortunes, Chafee officially joined the Democratic Party in May 2013. But with two strong Democrats already running in the primary, it soon became clear that Chafee would lose — and badly. So in September 2013, he announced he wouldn't run for reelection, saying he'd rather focus on governing.

At the time, the New York Times said the decision "effectively ends his political career." Apparently Chafee disagrees, even though, as WMUR put it, his "longtime allies" find his interest in a presidential campaign "puzzling."

In his weak Democratic Party ties, Chafee resembles others in the field of declared and potential challengers to Hillary Clinton. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has been an independent throughout his career, and former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia served as Reagan’s secretary of the Navy before joining the Democratic Party and serving one term in the Senate.

Indeed, the only consistent Democrat who seems likely to run is Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland, who announced his bid on Saturday. Other rank-and-file Democrats seem reluctant to take on Clinton.

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