Libertarian Party

Lincoln Chafee, Former Republican Senator and Independent Governor, Seeks Libertarian Party Presidential Nomination

Chafee may be the first in an eventual wave of former Republicans seeking the Libertarian presidential nod.


Lincoln Chafee, who served as Rhode Island's Republican Senator from 1999 to 2007 (after serving as a Republican mayor in the highly Democratic city of Warwick for the previous six years), served as governor of Rhode Island from 2011 to 2015 as an independent, and ran for president in the 2016 cycle as a Democrat, on Wednesday will formally announce his intention to seek the Libertarian presidential nomination at an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Chafee's campaign website says he intends to "Protect Our Freedoms" and "Tell The Truth" and promises that under a President Chafee we'll see "No More Wars. No More Reckless Spending."

Chafee officially joined the Libertarian Party (L.P.) back in July, but he says in a phone interview today that he hadn't been planning a presidential run at first since he "expected other long-term Libertarians with elective experience to continue to want to be involved, Gov. [Gary] Johnson specifically." (Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, was the L.P.'s presidential candidate in 2012 and 2016.)

That didn't happen, and Chafee feels he's gotten "positive feedback" from meeting with Libertarians in "Miami, New Hampshire, Denver, and Rhode Island." His "anti-war, anti-deficit, strongly protective of civil liberties" message, particularly "after the events of last week in the Middle East" culminated in him thinking it was a good idea to run for president.

Chafee is aware that a significant portion of the L.P.'s delegate base, who will choose their standard-bearer at a May convention in Austin, Texas, are uncomfortable with perceived carpetbaggers attempting to secure the party's nomination without putting in the work. In a phone interview this morning, the L.P.'s national chair Nicholas Sarwark estimates the percentage likely to find Chafee's major party background a detriment, not a plus, could be as large as 25 percent.

But Chafee says his "30 year record of holding local, state, and federal offices" shows a politician who, at least a "lot of" the time, "aligns with the Libertarian philosophy" though he confesses "it doesn't always. Traveling around, not too many Libertarians I've met all agree with each other," he notes, but stresses that "on the big issues I've been very consistently anti-war, anti-deficit, [and] strongly in favor of civil liberties."

As far as conflicts that might be ahead with Libertarian partisans, Chafee says he's "a good listener" and also anticipates being willing to debate if called upon with his fellow contenders for the Libertarian presidential nomination. He doesn't think 100 percent agreement with every aspect of a party platform is something normally expected of any candidate with any party, but again thinks he should shine with Libertarians because "I am enthusiastically absolutely dedicated to not getting us into these quagmires overseas and ending foreign entanglements" and trying to curb the "$22.6 trillion debt." Those are the particular issues he wants to make central to his campaign, both for the nomination and, if he wins it, in the general election.

As far as facing Trump, should it come to that, Chafee says his career has made him skilled in "brass knuckle" political fighting.

One of the issues he's been dinged for in the past by libertarians is gun control, but Chafee says he's come to think "the reason there is more advocacy for strong Second Amendment protections is distrust of our government, and that distrust is legitimate."

"The biggest lie in American history," Chafee says, is that "Saddam [Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction and we invaded Iraq, and we are still there and it's getting worse. It's spread to Syria, Yemen, and it might spread to Iran."

In the wake of a generation grown up dealing with the dire effect of that lie, Chafee thinks, mistrust of the government makes total sense, and he does "believe the authors of the Second Amendment wrote it with that in mind, and if there is distrust of government we want to have a well-regulated armed militia."

Through his four major political affiliations, Chafee says, the throughline has been opposition to "fiscal irresponsibility" and "plunging into needless wars." That's why he left the Republicans, and why he thinks he's right for the Libertarians.

His professional political past could help earn media a more obscure Libertarian might not, he thinks, while "I also recognize the establishment [including the media] is in cahoots with the military-industrial complex; there is a bias from the establishment against anti-war candidates."

Sarwark says Chafee is wise to have begun his communication and visits with Libertarians on the state and local level early, which might help melt some anti-carpetbagger feeling. That he was the sole GOP Senate vote against the Iraq War should be a feather in his cap especially in the current foreign policy environment. Sarwark believes that when non-Libertarians get involved with the L.P., "they invariably become more libertarian by being around Libertarians."

Chafee has already shown a willingness to meet and talk to other L.P. candidates for other offices and is "trying to make himself helpful [to the L.P.] in whatever way he can," Sarwark says.

Sarwark suspects other Republicans, particularly those who are currently trying to primary Trump, might come sniffing around the L.P. before May as they get increasingly frustrated with "the president using the [Republican National Committee] to cancel primaries, avoiding debates." Perhaps people like Mark Sanford and Rocky De La Fuente might find the fairness of the L.P. process—delegates assemble at a convention and vote on a candidate, bare majority wins, with no powers above them (neither primary voters nor party bosses) controlling delegate votes—attractive. Plus, "whoever wins the nomination ends up on all the same ballots the Democrat and Republican will" for president, so why should they beat their heads against the wall of the RNC?

While his intentions remain a mystery publicly, there is always the chance former Republican and current independent congressman from Michigan Justin Amash might want to take his desire to tussle with Trump to the L.P. convention floor.

Chafee campaign manager Christopher Thrasher, an old L.P. hand, says Chafee wants to meet and learn from the L.P. rank and file and does not intend to run a campaign dictated by outside professional consultants or anything that could read as "Republican-lite or Democrat-lite," he notes. "Chafee has been elected as an independent, and his fundraising and support goes beyond [party affiliation] and is based on advocating issues that matter to Libertarians: anti-war and anti-deficit."

He adds that Chafee "has been in electoral politics for more than 30 years without a single scandal, which shows his integrity," part of why Chafee's campaign slogan is "Lead with Truth."