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Rhode Island governor to switch from independent to Democrat

BOSTON (Reuters) - Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, who followed his father into politics as a Republican and later became an independent, plans to change his registration to Democrat on Thursday, a spokeswoman said.

Chafee, who previously served in the U.S. Senate, decided to change his political party affiliation due to the rightward shift of the Republican party, spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger said on Wednesday.

"The governor left the Republican party as the agenda of the Republican party changed and became more about disparity of wealth and the gap between the wealthy and the not powerful," said Hunsinger.

"He understands and recognizes that his beliefs are aligned with that of the Democratic party ... There is strength in numbers for fighting on behalf of the Rhode Island taxpayer against monied interests and the very powerful."

Chafee, the son of former Rhode Island Governor and Senator John Chafee, was appointed to a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1999, following his father's death, and he was elected to hold the seat as a Republican a year later.

His 2006 reelection campaign failed and Chafee switched his party affiliation to Independent ahead of his run for governor.

Even before Chafee confirmed the switch, White House spokesman Jay Carney told a press briefing, "The president welcomes Governor Chafee to the party.

"Governor Chafee has been a long-time supporter of President Obama and not - not - and not as a party matter, but as a supporter of the president and his policy proposals."

Chafee supported U.S. President Barack Obama's 2008 election and 2012 reelection.

The smallest U.S. state was hard hit by the financial crisis and has struggled to recover. As of April its unemployment rate was 8.8 percent, the 6th highest in the country.

A February poll by Brown University found that 26 percent of respondents in the state approved of how Chafee was doing his job, ranking him well below other local officials. For example, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras had a 64 percent approval rating and State Treasurer Gina Raimondo had a 56 percent approval rating. Taveras and Raimondo, both Democrats, are seen as possible challengers to Chafee.

Earlier in May, Chafee signed a bill legalizing gay marriage in the state, making Rhode Island the 10th state in the union and last of the six New England states to recognize it.

Independent politicians are not uncommon in New England. The two independents currently in the U.S. Senate hail from the region - Vermont's Bernie Sanders and Maine's Angus King.

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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