WARWICK, R.I. — Long before he was a Republican US senator, the nation’s only independent governor, or a newly minted Democrat eyeing a second term, Lincoln Chafee wrestled for Brown University, a solo pursuit that foreshadowed a career often spent grappling on the political edges.
On Thursday, Chafee cast his lot with the Democrats, long the state’s dominant party. Chafee said he shares many priorities with Democrats and respects the leadership of President Obama. He also acknowledged that ‘‘joining a team’’ would allow him to collaborate with the Democratic governors in neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts and raise money for his bid for a second term.
‘‘I’ve got a home, and it feels good,’’ he told reporters after changing his party registration at City Hall in Warwick, where he got his political start as a city councilman and mayor. ‘‘There comes a time when the issues are so big, you want to be part of a team.’’
Critics accused Chafee of a calculated political move designed to shore up support and funds for the 2014 governor’s race. But those who know Chafee well said the switch is another example of his insistence on doing things his own way.
‘‘We’ve all seen him be an independent, a free-thinker,’’ said Mayor Scott Avedisian of Warwick, a longtime Republican ally whose first job was working for Chafee’s father, John, the former US senator, governor, and naval secretary. ‘‘I think this is a part of that. But it will be weird to me that he’ll be on a primary ballot and I won’t be able to vote for him.’’
Though Chafee insists his switch came down to conviction, pundits wasted little time in analyzing the move’s implications for next year’s Democratic primary, already expected to feature Mayor Angel Taveras of Providence and Treasurer Gina Raimondo as candidates.
Republican Governors Association executive director Phil Cox said Chafee’s decision was ‘‘based purely on politics.’’
‘‘Saddled with the worst approval rating of any governor and a difficult path to reelection, Lincoln Chafee flip-flopped again,’’ Cox said in a statement.
Chafee has never been a master of political expediency. He was the only Republican in the US Senate to vote against the Iraq War and crossed his party again to vote against Bush-era tax cuts. He left the party in 2007 after losing his seat to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.
As the nation’s only independent governor, Chafee tussled with conservatives over what to call the State House Christmas tree, insisting on calling it a holiday tree and even canceling the lighting ceremony. While the act endeared him to some supporters, it turned off hundreds of voters who rallied in protest at the State House.
He has butted heads with the General Assembly, pushing unpopular proposals to broaden the state sales tax and rein in municipal pension problems long after they were dismissed by state lawmakers.
Chafee’s stubborn streak extended even to his announcement that he was switching parties. Chafee planned to announce his decision Thursday, and he refused to confirm the news early, even after it was substantiated by Obama.
‘‘Linc Chafee is probably one of the most honest people in the world, but you don’t always like what he says,’’ said Donald Morash, a Warwick resident who years ago was appointed to the city Zoning Board by Chafee, then the mayor.
Morash said he respects Chafee, but not the party switch.