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Lincoln Chafee gets most of his campaign money from one surprising donor

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist
Lincoln Chafee gets most of his campaign money from one surprising donor

The 2016 presidential race gets more quixotic by the day.

Lincoln Chafee is the latest underdog candidate to defy the odds and announce his candidacy for president even though he’s from the tiny state of Rhode Island, he has minimal name recognition and he supposedly lacks the stomach for tough, negative campaigning.

Chafee is barely a Democrat, even though he’s running as one: He served one full term in the Senate as a liberal Republican, then got elected as Rhode Island governor in 2010 as an independent. He became a Democrat in 2013, just halfway through his term as governor.

Chafee says he’ll make foreign policy the focus on his campaign, arguing that Hillary Clinton accomplished little of note during her four-year tenure as secretary of state. Clinton also voted for the Iraq war in 2002 when she was a Democratic senator from New York, while Chafee was the only Republican senator to vote against it — a view that proved shrewd, in retrospect. Still, that may not be enough for Chafee to distinguish himself from Clinton or even draw much attention to himself, since most Americans have little to no idea who he is. (Though his biggest claim to fame since announcing is his call for the U.S. to adopt the metric system.)

Chafee will also be at a sharp fundraising disadvantage against Clinton, who aims to raise an impressive $100 million by the time of the primary elections next spring. That’s well beyond the range of Chafee—who raised just $5.6 million as a senator and a scant $2.6 million as a candidate for governor. He seems unfazed by the money gap, however. Here’s where Chafee has raised money for prior races:

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His wife. Chafee and his wife Stephanie Danforth Chafee are both from storied New England political families that have built up wealth over generations. The couple’s net worth was at least $60 million when Chafee’s term in the Senate ended in 2007, according to Congressional disclosures. That made Chafee one of the 10 wealthiest senators in Washington at the time. The Chafees may be worth considerably more now -- but much of that probably comes from his wife's family money. Stephanie Chafee donated about $1.8 million to her husband’s campaign for governor in 2010 — nearly 65% of all the money he raised, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Even a family as wealthy as the Chafees can’t afford to finance a successful presidential campaign, though.

Republican campaign committees. They were among Chafee’s biggest donors when he was a Senate Republican, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Obviously, that source of money has dried up.

The financial industry. Professional investors were the fourth-biggest source of funds for Chafee while he was a senator. He may still be able to pick up some Wall Street money, but he’s way behind leading candidates such as Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who have been working the fat-cat bankers for months (or longer).

Ordinary Rhode Islanders. Chafee’s donor records for the 2010 governor’s race are remarkable in one telling way: The biggest donor, other than the Chafees, gave a mere $3,000. Virtually every other presidential candidate (with the exception of Bernie Sanders) has been able to tap at least a couple of megadonors with big enough wallets to make five- or even six-figure donations. Almost all of Chafee’s donors, by contrast, gave less than $1,000, with about 82% of those donors living in Rhode Island. That leaves a puny network of national donors for Chafee to call upon.

Unions. A scattering of unions representing teachers, healthcare workers, carpenters, civil servants and others gave modestly to Chafee’s gubernatorial campaign, indicating the former Republican’s leftward drift. But Chafee could have a hard time convincing unions to support him for president rather than Clinton, since he faces such steep odds. It’s tough being a Republicrat, even with a rich and generous wife.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.