In a parallel universe Linc Chafee and John Ellis “Jeb” Bush—born just six weeks apart in 1953—would both be powerful Republican royalty, sitting atop the American political establishment. But the descendants of the moderate Connecticut Republican Senator Prescott Sheldon Bush left New England and the party’s moderate wing while the Chafees remained in Rhode Island and clung to an older model. Their moderate patch of the GOP political spectrum has all but evaporated, leaving Linc Chafee by far the most liberal Republican in the Senate after he assumed his father John’s seat in 1999. After voting against abolishing the estate tax, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War, Chafee even voted against President Bush’s reelection in 2004 (preferring to write in the name of Bush’s father, George Herbert Walker Bush).
Chafee’s days as a Republican were numbered. After being defeated in the wave election of 2006 by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, he became an Independent in 2007. He supported Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election, won Rhode Island’s governorship as an Independent in 2010, and changed his registration to Democratic in 2013.
What does Linc Chafee’s “leftward” drift tell us about presidential politics at the start of the 2016 campaign? First and foremost, that old-school moderates like Prescott Bush might not even recognize the positions assumed by the GOP on guns, contraception, abortion rights, affirmative action, the Middle East and immigration. And that the Republican Party has almost ceased to win elections in its old Yankee stronghold—in the current Congress, there are just four members with New England accents from the region amid the 300 or so in both houses. The story of Linc Chafee and Jeb Bush stand as the perfect metaphor for a Party that left “ayuh” in favor of “y’all.”
It’s hard to come up with a more dynastic political family in the Ocean State than the Chafees. After helping to found the colonial town of Higham, Massachusetts, the earliest American Chafees moved to Rhode Island, where they became one of the state’s leading families. Linc Chafee’s great-great grandfather, Henry Lippitt, was elected governor in 1874. And, of course, Chafee’s father John Lester Hubbard Chafee was a long-serving U.S. Senator, Governor, and Secretary of the Navy under Nixon. Before leaving Yale to fight in World War II, John Chafee was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity and the super-secret Order of Skull and Bones.
John Chafee graduated from Yale in 1947—one year ahead of another young World War II veteran, DKE, Bonesman, and scion of a New England political family named George Herbert Walker Bush. But while John Chafee returned to Rhode Island after law school to enter politics there, Bush moved his family to west Texas to become an oil man. The George H. W. Bush who represented a portion of Houston in the House of Representatives was quite a bit more conservative than Chafee and earlier Bushes—except on the issue of family planning, of which he remained an eloquent champion.
The two political scions that arrived on the bucolic campus of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts for high school must have seemed to others cut from identical cloth. Jeb Bush arrived having completed ninth grade in Houston, his hair long, and according to friends and acquaintances he chafed at the school’s 30-page book of rules and regulations for students, complete with an intricate system of demerits and punishments for wrongdoing. Linc Chafee, who lived with Bush in a three-story brick dormitory for 10th graders called Pemberton Cottage, was less well known for rule-breaking than Bush, who got into trouble for grades, pot-smoking, and bullying.
In fact, Linc initially ran as far as possible from the family business of politics. Sure, he did the requisite four years in the Ivy League (Brown)—but while there he majored in Classics, and soon fled to laid-back Bozeman Montana to attend farrier school at Montana State University. Yes, farrier—as in horseshoeing.
After spending the next seven years laboring on the harness racing circuit, Chafee entered politics at the most local level. In 1985 he was a delegate to the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention, and the next year was elected to the Warwick, R.I. City Council. He became mayor of the town, which has had a steady population in the low 80,000s, in 1992—and served in that office until appointed to complete his late father’s term in the U.S. Senate.
Jeb’s trajectory was more typical of a scion of a powerful political family, even more so than his older brother George’s. After earning a degree in Latin American affairs at the University of Texas, he became a successful real estate investor in Southern Florida. In 1986 he was named the state’s Secretary of Commerce, then joined his father’s successful campaign for President. In 1994 he was widely expected to become governor of Florida, even as his brother seemed to be on the path to lose the governor’s race in Texas. It didn’t turn out that way: George Walker Bush defeated Ann Richards by more than seven percentage points, while Jeb lost a squeaker to populist incumbent governor Lawton Chiles. Four years later he beat the sitting lieutenant governor, but he had already been eclipsed in the eyes of establishment Republicans by his wise-cracking older brother.
In his two terms as Florida’s governor, Bush earned a reputation for moderation (he was credited with environmental improvements to the Everglades, for immigration reform, and for reaching out to the state’s black voters). But his efforts to appear “pragmatic” bely more conservative policies like eliminating affirmative action, restructuring the state's higher educational system, and aggressively intervening in the 2003 Terry Schiavo case. And a decade after Bush signed the "Stand Your Ground" law, specially designed to increase his appeal to hardline conservatives, it remains at the center of the high-profile Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases—both involving two young black men killed by white men claiming they did so in self-defense.
Now, at the dawn of a long and expensive race to succeed Barack Obama in the White House, these two WASPy former prep-school classmates stare across a gaping political chasm. Those less-attuned to the workings of Republican politics since Bush v. Gore might view the mellow and unhurried Chafee and suggest that he underwent a political transformation that put him at odds with his ancestral party’s fiscal conservatism, second-amendment fealty, and hard line on drug laws.
But a more persuasive view suggests that both Linc and John Chafee pretty much stayed put. It’s the GOP—under the direction of Jeb Bush’s father and older brother (who were under the tutelage of consultants like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove) that has staggered ever rightward. Chafee is certainly an underdog in his fight for the Democratic nomination, but Bush is no shoo-in on his side, either. Whether the Bush name helps or hurts, it is one now much more associated with the Sunbelt, aggressive foreign policy and continued opposition to affirmative action and gay marriage. Two establishment, WASPy, GOP, families diverged in a wood, and perhaps voters in 2016 will determine which represents the one less traveled.
Jonathan Earle is a professor of history and dean of the Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College at Louisiana State University. He writes on U.S. politics and culture, and is completing a book on the presidential election of 1860 for Oxford University Press.