Storm Lake, Iowa
The Buena Vista University Democrats appear to have snubbed Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island senator and governor who is running for the Democratic nomination for president. A booth they’ve set up at the Unite Iowa Immigration Forum on this late summer Saturday is festooned with signs and paraphernalia for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley—but poor Governor Chafee has been left out. The young woman manning the station tells me the snub isn’t intentional—“We’d be happy to put up a sign for Chafee,” she avers, “if he had any.”
Chafee’s is a low-key campaign; in fact, it’s hardly a campaign at all. While even flailing also-rans like O’Malley have stickers, buttons, and entourages in tow (which makes the former Maryland governor’s 3.8 percent average in Iowa polls all the more pitiful), Chafee’s bid has a distinctly do-it-yourself air. Like a small-town banker running for a city council seat, he strolls around events in Iowa essentially alone, sticking out his hand to strangers and introducing himself, his unshakable grin never leaving his face. His campaign is capitalized like a small-town banker’s, as well: In the first quarter, Chafee (who goes by “Linc”) brought in less than $30,000. Clinton raised more than $45 million over the same period; even the socialist Sanders reeled in a cool $15 million.
Chafee’s accessibility and down-to-earth nature come as a genuinely pleasant surprise, given his Brahmin background. The Chafee clan settled in America long ago, in Hingham, Massachusetts, in the early 17th century, later moving south to Rhode Island. They have a storied political lineage. Lincoln’s great-great-grandfather was governor of Rhode Island, and his great-great-uncles were involved in the upper echelons of politics as well. Linc’s dad, John Chafee, served as a Rhode Island governor and longtime senator. They were all Republicans. Linc went to boarding school at Phillips Academy and then on to Brown University where he majored in classics.
Like many aimless rich kids, Linc sought out “work experiences” after graduation, and he ended up shoeing horses in Montana. His “finding himself” period lasted longer than most: He wound up working as a farrier for seven years. Finally, he returned to Little Rhody, where he was elected mayor of Warwick, the state’s second-largest city. Linc was appointed to his dad’s Senate seat after John Chafee died in office in 1999, and he then went on to win election, as a Republican (though a very liberal one), on his own. In 2006, he was defeated by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse—Rhode Island’s partisan bent was just too much for even the pro-choice, anti-Iraq-war Chafee to overcome. Undeterred, he left the Republican party and ran for governor as an independent in 2010, winning a three-way race with less than 40 percent of the vote. Unpopular from the start, and with Rhode Island’s economy a national laggard, Chafee declined to seek reelection last year.
And now, somewhat bizarrely, he’s running for president. As a Democrat.
The aristocratic Chafee has suffered a string of indignities since launching his campaign this spring. After receiving an initial flurry of coverage spurred by his (sparsely attended) campaign launch, where he proposed moving America to the metric system, he’s been mentioned as a punch line—if he’s been mentioned at all.
In late May, Chafee’s wife posted online, “Does anybody from my Husband’s staff remember his [Facebook] page access?” It seems the governor had forgotten his login. (Bloomberg headline: “Does Anybody Remember Lincoln Chafee’s Facebook Password?”) In July, a poll of more than 1,000 adults nationwide found that Chafee “registered no support.” That means that literally nobody polled said they would vote for him. (Mother Jones: “Poll: Lincoln Chafee has no supporters.”) Last week, at a DNC meeting in Minneapolis, Chafee held a Q&A session with reporters that was scheduled to last 15 minutes. The press ran out of questions after 7.
But that doesn’t mean Chafee isn’t eager to talk—or to go after the Democratic frontrunner in a way that even Bernie Sanders seems reluctant to do. In Storm Lake, he tears into Hillary Clinton for “drinking the neocon Kool-Aid.” She was “much too hawkish as secretary of state,” he tells me. And not just on Libya or Afghanistan. “Venezuela and Russia too,” he avers. “[Hugo] Chavez was elected by the people. . . . It was a political revolution,” he says, criticizing U.S. sanctions on Caracas. And Hillary was far too hawkish on Russia as well, “starting with the reset button, which was misspelled,” he says pointedly (and accurately).