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R.I. Governor Lincoln Chafee to switch to Democratic Party

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee.

Steven Senne/AP

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee.

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. (AP) — Independent Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee is joining the Democratic Party ahead of his 2014 bid for a second term, his spokeswoman said Wednesday, confirming a move that Chafee has been talking about for months as a way to better position himself for re-election.

Chafee would not immediately address his party switch when asked about it Wednesday after he exited a ferry from Block Island to the mainland, saying only that he would announce his decision at his local board of canvassers in Warwick on Thursday morning. But he did say his priorities haven’t changed.

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‘‘All I've cared about since my time in public service started is good, honest, efficient government. That hasn’t changed. Nothing has changed since I was a councilman in Warwick,’’ Chafee said.

The governor, a former Republican senator, became a political independent in 2007, the year after he lost re-election to the U.S. Senate. He was elected as the nation’s only independent governor in 2010.

Chafee has noted in the past that he shares many positions with Democrats and that joining the party would help with fundraising. He is a supporter of President Barack Obama, who he endorsed ahead of the Democratic primary in 2008, and he spoke at last year’s Democratic National Convention. But for local Democrats, the move complicates next year’s gubernatorial primary and sets up the possibility of a three-way matchup with Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Treasurer Gina Raimondo.

Obama said in a statement that he was delighted and thrilled by the decision. He called Chafee an ‘‘independent thinker and leader who’s unafraid to reach across party lines to get things done’’ and said he looked forward to working with him in the years ahead. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said the group was excited to welcome Chafee and looked forward to ‘‘enthusiastically supporting whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee in Rhode Island.’’

Many local Democrats declined to immediately weigh in, with some saying they hadn’t been informed of Chafee’s plan and others declining to comment. House Speaker Gordon Fox, the most powerful Democrat in state politics, had not been told of any plan by Chafee to switch parties, a spokesman for Fox said. Hours after news of the switch broke, Fox issued a statement saying he was pleased Chafee had joined Democrats’ ranks and looked forward to talking about it with Chafee soon.

Taveras responded by highlighting his own party credentials, saying in a statement that he has been ‘‘a Democrat and a Red Sox fan my whole life, and I don’t intend on changing either.’’

Raimondo said in a statement that Chafee’s decision to switch parties a second time has not changed her thinking on a run for governor, which she said she is seriously considering.

‘‘The question Rhode Islanders have is who can provide the leadership we need to move our state forward,’’ she said.

Former longtime Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy told The Associated Press that the move makes sense for Chafee given his political views, including his support for Obama’s health care overhaul and his longtime support for legalizing same-sex marriage, which he recently signed into law in Rhode Island. Kennedy said Chafee’s views ‘‘put him in the mainstream of the Democratic Party.’’

‘‘He has been very progressive in those ways and I think he'll find a lot of people embracing him, and I think welcoming him,’’ Kennedy said, adding that it would be great to have him join the party.

Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in Rhode Island more than three to one, although most voters aren’t affiliated with any party.

When asked how he thinks local Democrats will react, given the likelihood that two longtime Democrats are already running for governor, Kennedy, who now lives in New Jersey, said Democrats know Chafee shares their core principles.

‘‘He is the incumbent governor, and he has been a strong supporter of our incumbent president, and I think it would be important for us to acknowledge his support for the traditional principles of the Democratic Party. It’s not like he’s becoming a Democrat for political expediency alone. He’s been consistent,’’ Kennedy said.

Brown University political science Prof. Wendy Schiller said changing parties is a risky move for the governor, setting up a matchup with two of the state’s most popular politicians with built-in bases of support.

Taveras is Hispanic and is likely to compete with Chafee for the support of organized labor. Raimondo could win over more conservative Democrats and tussle with Chafee for the party’s female base.

‘‘I still do not see the significant gain for Chafee in switching parties,’’ Schiller said. ‘‘Raimondo and Taveras represent the future of the Democratic Party. They span a wide spectrum of Democratic voters. I think he'd really benefit if those two really beat each other up.’’

Schiller also downplayed the fundraising advantage to switching parties, saying his status as the nation’s only independent governor gave him a distinction he will lose by becoming just another Northeast Democrat.

Although Rhode Island is heavily Democratic, it has not had a Democratic governor for years. Chafee will become the first Democrat to hold the seat since 1995.

Chafee is son of the late U.S. Sen. John Chafee, a former governor whose name was synonymous with the Republican Party in Rhode Island for decades. When John Chafee died in office in 1999, Lincoln Chafee was appointed to fill his seat, and then won re-election to the post the following year. In the Senate, he voted to the left of many Democrats, opposing the war in Iraq, for example. But he stuck it out as a Republican through his 2006 re-election campaign, which he lost to Whitehouse.

He left the party in 2007 and became an independent. He made his political comeback in 2010, winning a four-way race for governor with 36 percent of the vote.

As governor, Chafee has struggled with poor approval ratings and some of his policy proposals have fizzled in the face of opposition in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, such as an early plan to expand the sales tax.

Chafee is a reluctant fundraiser, and he has often depended on personal wealth to fund his campaigns. He told the AP in December that he was considering joining the Democrats to help his chances of winning a second term.

Associated Press writers Michelle R. Smith in Providence and Ken Thomas and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.

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