Mitt Romney and Lincoln Chafee have surprisingly similar family backgrounds, both the product of prominent Republican households. Their fathers governed states as Rockefeller Republicans—George Romney in Michigan, John Chafee in Rhode Island—then served together in Richard Nixon's cabinet. The sons followed their fathers' molds as moderate Northeastern Republicans to great success a decade ago. Romney became the governor of Massachusetts in 2002 and Chafee replaced his father in the Senate, each serving one term in their respective roles.
From there they split. Romney, of course, disavowed his moderate image to run for president in 2008, sticking to his severely conservative mantra up until the final month of this year's presidential campaign. Chafee, on the other hand, disavowed his party after he lost his Senate seat to a Democrat in 2006. He endorsed his former Senate colleague Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary and ran for governor of Rhode Island in 2010 as an independent, winning a three-man race in which president Obama declined to endorse the Democratic candidate.
Chafee is repaying Obama's favor on the 2012 campaign trail. He offered the apostate's address at the Democratic Convention in September and has been hitting the trail to assist the president. I caught up with Chafee Sunday afternoon at an Obama field office in Henrico, Virginia, a booming suburb just outside Richmond that voted for Bush in '04 but flipped to Obama in '08.
"When I left the party I made the decision that the party wouldn't swing back to my traditional Republican values," Chafee told me in a hallway outside the Obama office before he spoke to the volunteers, "which are fiscal responsibility, not letting deficits grow, taking care of the environment, women's rights, and just general liberties, letting people live their lives as they see fit, leaving people alone. Not getting into foreign entanglements. Traditional Republican values that have changed over the last decade or so. They don't care about the environment, don't care about personal liberties, fiscal conservatism or the deficit, and getting us into all these quagmires overseas. I made the decision to leave because I didn't think it was coming back."
Befitting his moderate policies, Chafee keeps his critiques relatively polite, but he has few kind words for Romney's candidacy. Chafee doesn't buy Mitt Romney's recent feints to the center one iota. "The first decision was to choose Paul Ryan as the vice president," Chafee said. "If they really wanted to tack to the middle they would have chosen Olympia Snowe, or somebody else to be the VP. Governor Romney couldn't have gone more far right, Ryan is a foot soldier for Dick Cheney and the agenda that got this country in such trouble. All the bad decisions—the war, the tax cuts, the prescription drug benefit, bad environmental policies."
A press aide pulled Chafee away before I could get any further thoughts on the extinction of the northeastern Republican. A crowd of 30 Obama volunteers—a young, diverse group—crammed into the office's entry room to listen to Chafee and Katherine Waddell, a former Virginia state representative and fellow renounced Republican, boost the Obama cause. "It was very cathartic to walk into my board of canvassers and disaffiliate from being a Republican five years ago," Chafee told the volunteers. "I'm an independent and proud to be here supporting my colleague in the Senate—Senator Obama was in the Senate when I was, we overlapped for two years and served on two committees. No surprise that he was going places, even then. He's been a great president and he's going to continue to be a great president." With that the crowd dispersed. Chafee and Waddell headed into a back room for a brief canvass training and then hit the road to go door knocking for Obama in Henrico.