I was at Fenway in 2009 when Jacoby Ellsbury stole home against Andy Pettitte and the New York Yankees. One moment we’re waiting for the next pitch and then a huge roar rises up as 38,000 fans (and Andy Pettitte) realize that Ells is steps from home. Fenway exploded and I found myself jumping up and down screaming in celebration with the guy next to me (I think his name was Sully) and reveling in the greatest baseball moment I’d ever witnessed firsthand.
We saw an attempted steal of our own in Little Rhody last week as Governor Chafee tried to get from second to third in his reelection campaign by switching his party affiliation. He was born a Chafee (that got him to first) and is a self-funded incumbent, getting him to second base and into scoring position for 2014. From that vantage point he surveyed the political landscape and realized that staying an “I” did not have the inherent political advantages of being a “D” and decided to change parties in hopes that it gets him around third in deep blue Rhody.
Chafee’s thinking is politically astute. He sees his approval ratings and knows that to survive, he needs to be judged only by the people who see him most favorably and only under circumstances under which he has most control over voter turnout. A Democratic primary suits him best since the “anyone but Chafee” crowd does not participate, voter ID and persuasion are simpler because the universe is smaller and it’s easy to drive up turn out in those urban areas where he will do well.
His relationship with President Obama will also be more impactful in a D primary. In 2010 Chafee used this friendship to keep the White House machine from supporting Frank Caprio in the race for governor. Chafee has since realized that if he were a D, the White House and fellow D governors could prove very useful in raising money and garnering support from the party faithful. You’ll note that Chafee had a private meeting with the President a week before the “leak” and that the first communication out of the White House was a “welcome to the party” along with a fundraising solicitation. John Chafee didn’t raise a fool.
With no reelection of his own, President Obama can spend plenty of time on fundraising for 2014 and could enjoy several visits to Rhode Island to help his friend. With our $1,000 fundraising limits, the biggest help Obama can give could come through guiding independent expenditures and the use of the super-charged voter ID system that his billion-dollar campaign employed. It’s a tad ironic that someone who has party-bucked and party-surfed as much as Chafee has would now try to leverage others’ party loyalty for his own benefit. Today that “Trust Chafee” logo from 2010 looks like a misprint to some Rhode Islanders who thought he was truly independent.
What Governor Chafee cannot control or calculate well is how other likely competitors in the Democratic primary are going to perform. If Mayor Angel Taveras decides to run, he and Chafee will split the left side of the party. Taveras will do well among Latinos and Chafee will have the backing of the public employee unions. If Treasurer Gina Raimondo joins the fray, she’ll do well with the more fiscally conservative Democrats and will attract independents to the race. And for more irony - by joining the Democratic Party, Chafee is giving them the governor’s office for the first time since 1995 but may also create a fierce primary that prevents them from keeping it into 2015. This is in spite of the fact that the most popular officeholders in the state – Taveras and Raimondo – are Democrats and appear willing to run. Maybe Chafee is a Republican after all.
Some readers might have seen Ellsbury’s milestone last week – in Philadelphia he stole five bases in one night, setting a new Red Sox team record. To commemorate the feat, the Phillies good-naturedly gave him second base to take home. While I am certain that Chafee would like Democrats to take his conversion at face value and let him take third base and the primary win for his trophy case, it’s more likely that he’ll be in a rundown until the primary on September 9, 2014. And of course, if he manages to get around third, there will be a Block – and a Fung – in front of home plate.