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Chafee's Surprise Exit Opens Door to Tight Rhode Island Race

Image: Chafee's Surprise Exit Opens Door to Tight Rhode Island Race

By John Gizzi   |   Friday, 06 Sep 2013 09:13 AM

No sooner had Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Lincoln Chafee announced that he would not seek re-election than the maneuvering started for what is shaping up as a highly unusual race to pick his successor.

It is likely to include the first Chinese-American to be nominated as a Republican for governor in any state, a Democrat who defied unions to reform state pensions leading for her party's nomination, and a very formidable third-party contender.

A former Republican senator who infuriated conservatives with his decidedly liberal record — notably holding up a vote on John Bolton's nomination to be United Nations ambassador — Chafee in 2010 ran for governor as an independent in a four-way race, wining job once held by his father.

After supporting former Senate colleague Barack Obama for re-election last year, Chafee finally joined the Democratic Party in May and signaled he would seek re-election as a Democrat.

But on Wednesday he announced he would abandon his bid for a second term.

With Rhode Island wracked by a moribund economy and high unemployment, Chafee faced a difficult battle in 2014. In addition, like many modern Republicans who switch to Democrat, Chafee was never fully accepted in his new political "home."

The last U.S. senator to switch from Republican to Democrat, the late Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, lost the Democratic primary in 2010, and the last U.S. representative to make the switch, Michael Forbes of New York, also was rejected for nomination by Democrats in 2000.

At the time of his announcement, Chafee was facing two heavyweight opponents in the Democratic primary next year. His exodus leaves the Democratic primary to Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, who has so far raised more than $700,000, and state General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who has more than $2 million in her campaign kitty.

The race is likely to be bloody. Raimondo won high marks for rescuing the state employees pension system from near-bankruptcy. But in instituting "tough love" reforms, she earned the enmity of the state's public-employee unions. With Chafee out, the unions are expected to line up behind their ally Taveras.

All this brings smiles to Republican faces, as they seem poised to field Cranston's three-term mayor Allan Fung, son of immigrants from Hong Kong. Fung likes to joke that even before he entered public service, he was "serving" Rhode Islanders at his parents' restaurant.

"I would call Allan moderate-to-conservative and certainly someone who knows how to balance a budget," David Talan, a strong conservative and former Republican city chairman of Providence, told Newsmax. "He's without question the best candidate we can offer for governor."

The wild card in the race is software developer and multi-millionaire developer Ken Block, head of the new Moderate Party — known in Rhode Island political shorthand as the "Block Party" because it is centered completely around its founder and 2010 nominee for governor.

Running as a reformer and spending generously from his own wealth, Block drew 6.5 percent of the vote in a candidacy which many say tipped the tight contest from Republican John Robitaille to Chafee. Because Block drew more than 5 percent of the vote, the Moderate Party will automatically be on the ballot next year.

In fact, Block already has publicly declared he's running, and has billboards up all over the state. What Block has not announced is what party he will run in — Moderate or Republican.

He is toying with running against Fung in the Republican primary, and has included questions about running as a Republican in the poll he has taken. He even has spoken to the GOP town committees in Barrington and Little Compton.

At this time, about the only thing one can say about state politics in 2014 is that there will be big action in "Little Rhody."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

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