A Rhode Island native educated at Phillips Academy and Brown University, Chafee worked as a professional farrier for seven years before entering state politics in 1985. He was a delegate to the Rhode Island State Constitutional Convention, a member of the Warwick, Rhode Island city council, and later the mayor of Warwick. Chafee was appointed to the United States Senate in 1999 upon the death of his father, Senator John Chafee, and was re-elected in the 2000 Senate election for a full six-year term.
Chafee was a supporter of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential bid. On January 4, 2010, Chafee declared his intent to run for Governor of Rhode Island. Prior to entering the gubernatorial race, he was a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies.