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Sen. Chris Coons Savors His New Role

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Sen. Chris Coons may be best-known for beating tea party candidate Christine O’Donnell in 2010, but he is working hard to make a name for himself in the Senate.

Chris Coons wasn’t expected to become a U.S. Senator.

The Delaware Democrat, who started in local government, was supposed to lose the 2010 election to the venerable Rep. Mike Castle (R), a former governor and holder of Delaware’s at-large Congressional seat since 1993.

But it didn’t quite work out that way, and now Coons’ unlikely path to the Senate has made him feel he needs to work even harder to show that he deserves his seat.

“Unfortunately, or fortunately, I think that has meant that I have had the opportunity to earn it every day by working hard, showing up early, staying late, asking questions, doing the reading. And that fits both my personality and my state,” Coons said in an interview last week. “We are a centrist, reasonable state that isn’t looking for a lot of notoriety.”

Just 14 months ago, Coons appeared to be a sacrificial lamb for his party, given he was trailing Castle in the election-year polls by double digits. But Coons never had to go head-to-head against Castle. The Republican was upset in the primary by tea party favorite Christine O’Donnell, who, among other things, is known for an ad proclaiming she was “not a witch” after video emerged during the campaign of her saying she had “dabbled into witchcraft.” The former underdog quickly became the favorite — he defeated O’Donnell by 17 points — but Coons arrived in the Capitol less famous than his opponent. And he was often mistaken for staff by others in the building.

“Invariably, I would have to say ‘I was elected in a special election in 2010,’” Coons said. “They’d sort of look at me. I would say ‘I am the freshman Senator from Delaware.’ And they would look at me. Then I would say ‘OK, OK, I beat the witch.’ And they would say, ‘Oh, oh, that race.’”

Coons is now better known and has been actively making friends on both sides of the aisle even though he was sworn in just a year ago on Nov. 15, 2010, the first day of the 2010 lame-duck session. He is serving out the remaining four years of Vice President Joseph Biden’s term.

Coons said his biggest frustration has been the slow pace of the Senate, which has been hampered by partisan gridlock. But the former county executive has sought out the counsel of other executives-turned-Senators who also had trouble adjusting, including Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), who all were governors or mayors.

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