Sen. Coons: 'I'm nobody's pet'

Conventional political wisdom might call Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) “lucky.” He simply calls himself a centrist.

In an interview with The Hill at the end of his first week in the Senate, Delaware’s newly elected junior senator said he was surprised at the media attention that surrounded his general election campaign against Tea Party-favorite Christine O’Donnell (R) and said his victory reflects the “reasonable, balanced, centrist” nature of his state’s voters.

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A Connecticut native, Coons, 47, spent nine years in New Castle County government, Delaware’s largest county and home to its largest city, Wilmington. He was elected County Executive in 2004 and served in that office until his Senate election.

He was once thought to be on a fool’s errand in his bid for the Senate seat that belonged to Vice President Joe Biden for nearly 30 years. Biden’s son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, was considered an inevitable successor for the seat but passed up the race in 2009, clearing a path for Coons to win a bloodless Democratic primary.

Establishment Republicans promoted Rep. Mike Castle (R), a former lieutenant governor, two-term governor and congressman since 1993, for the seat, and he was generally favored over Coons. But Castle surprisingly lost to O’Donnell in the GOP primary in September after Tea Party activists helped boost her campaign.

Coons beat O’Donnell with a sober, clear-headed and deliberate campaign, resisting personal attacks during debates and focusing on voters more than on the media. Yet he acknowledges he was surprised at the attention O’Donnell and the race received.

“What I focused on, from the beginning of the campaign to the end, was what Delawareans were concerned about,” Coons said. “People asked about the same three things over and over: Jobs, the deficit and partisanship. But after the primaries, there was a dramatic increase in the national and international media attention in the race, yet they weren’t asking about those things. So I just kept listening to the voters. … I think, ultimately, the voters of the state responded well to that.”

Coons disagrees that he would have lost against Castle, citing polls that showed him neck-and-neck with the congressman. Instead, he attributes his win to his years in New Castle County government and his positive approach.

Asked if O’Donnell was too extreme for First State voters, Coons suggested she was, but again avoided direct criticism.

“Delawareans were interested in a candidate to hire to go represent them in the U.S. Senate who was able and willing to focus on job creation, tackling the deficit and debt, and building bipartisan solutions,” he said. “I think the outcome of the election shows they concluded I was better prepared and better able to listen to them and respond to those concerns."

A much-seized-upon comment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) threatened Coons’ campaign at one point. In an interview with The Hill in September, Reid spoke glowingly of Coons and twice referred to him as “my pet.” O’Donnell’s campaign seized on the remark and repeatedly referred to it as proof that Coons was an establishment candidate.

Asked for his reaction to Reid’s comment, Coons said, “My gut reaction was that, I’m nobody’s ‘pet,’ and I’m somebody who’s dedicated to working tirelessly for Delaware and Delaware’s interests.”

Coons said he and Reid are not longtime friends, but the majority leader called him early in the campaign and the two hit it off.

“I think from early on, he was optimistic about my chances,” Coons said of Reid. “I can’t second-guess what he was referring to, but my sense is that he was enthusiastic about my race even when many others thought it was a long shot.”

Because he succeeded interim Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), Coons has taken over Kaufman’s seats on four committees — which were Biden’s: Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Homeland Security and Government Affairs and Judiciary. This past week, he participated in his first hearings and votes in those committees, which included a U.S. attorney nomination, a review of the war in Afghanistan, a hearing on cyber security and a confirmation of new military commanders.

However, Coons said he plans to seek a seat instead on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, headed by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Coons said he wants to sit on the panel because his years in local government taught him the need for small-business incentives.

Noting that he has two 11-year-old sons and a 9-year-old daughter, Coons also said he plans to replicate Biden’s famous habit of commuting between Wilmington and Washington by train each night.

Describing himself as a fiscal conservative, Coons said he wants to focus on economic legislation and plans to reach out to Republicans to ease the Senate’s bitter partisanship.

“Delaware is a very reasonable, balanced, centrist place,” he said. “There is a lot of bipartisanship. It’s a small state. It’s a state of neighbors. ... I’m hopeful that the new members of the Senate can bring some of that positive bipartisanship spirit to Washington.”

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