WASHINGTON—Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee plans to formally open his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on Wednesday, setting off on a quixotic political quest that has left even some of his closest allies scratching their heads.
Chafee, a former Republican turned independent who joined the Democratic Party two years ago, surprised many when he announced plans to explore a presidential run in April. Since then, he’s made little effort to set up a competitive campaign operation, beyond a few visits and calls to activists in the early voting states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.
While his primary competitors travel the country raising money and wooing supporters, longtime Chafee strategists and donors say they know little about his intentions — or even his rationale for running.
“He’s not done anything other than posture on some issues,” said Mike Trainor, a former Chafee aide. “The question he’s going to have to answer is what credible indications can he give that he is at all ready to run a national campaign.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the dominant Democratic candidate, has set a goal of raising $100 million for her primary bid. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who entered the race last week, has said he’s already raised at least $4 million. And allies of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have established a super PAC to support his bid.
All three have begun building robust campaign operations with staff across the country, a step Chafee has yet to take.
In previous campaigns, Chafee has spent significant sums from his family fortune to further his political ambitious, for example, dropping $1.8 million on his 2010 gubernatorial bid. But running for president is significantly more expensive than seeking statewide office, with some pegging the estimated cost of a successful 2016 campaign at more than $1 billion.
“The time will come, but it’s not now,” Chafee said of his plans to raise money, in an interview with The Associated Press last month. “Perhaps after I announce.”
Chafee also faces questions about his rationale for challenging Clinton. Though most of the Democratic field has focused on pocketbook issues, calculating that the falling unemployment rate masks a lingering feeling of economic insecurity, Chafee says he’s “alarmed” by international instability, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.
“I don’t like where this is going,” he said in a Web video announcing his exploratory committee.
His opposition to Clinton, Chafee has said, is driven by the belief that the next president should not be someone who supported the war in Iraq, which he calls “one of the worst decisions in United States history.” Then a Republican, Chafee was the lone GOP senator to vote in 2002 against the invasion.
Clinton, then a New York senator, voted to authorize the war, which became a major issue during her 2008 campaign. Clinton now opposes putting American soldiers on the ground in Iraq, other than as advisers to the Iraqi forces. “This has to be fought by and won by the Iraqis,” she said after a campaign event in New Hampshire last month.
Chafee left the Republican Party in 2007 to become an independent and supported President Barack Obama in both his campaigns. After winning election as governor, Chafee became a Democrat in 2013, but he opted against seeking re-election amid low approval ratings. Those decisions attracted plenty of national media attention, which former aides say Chafee was happy to encourage.
So far, his latest political maneuver has attracted far less notice, even from his hometown paper — a fact that’s frustrated at least one person very close to the soon-to-be candidate.
“No one has contacted him,” wrote his wife, Stephanie Chafee, on Facebook nearly three weeks after his April announcement. “so SAD!”