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.
“All four of these guys really frankly had a hard time with the transition, with feeling like ‘we used to do stuff every day, now we just talk and talk and talk,’” Coons said. “And I have really struggled with that at times, particularly because of the partisanship and the endless filibusters.”
Carper, Delaware’s senior Senator, has helped the junior Senator acclimate to the Senate.
“He’s usually the smartest guy in the room,” Carper said. “But he is also a very humble person. ... He sees his job to serve, not to be served. Some people have that switched the other way around.”
Carper also said he told Coons, regarding the slow pace, that “one of the things I’ve learned around here is that sometimes making progress is stopping bad things from happening.”
Coons was surprised to have made the friends he has — particularly with Republicans — given the partisanship that permeates most of the chamber’s legislative work. “Individually, the Senators I have been able to invest in getting to know personally are bright, they are patriotic, they are hardworking, they are decent people, and if you can get past some of the team A [versus] team B fighting on the floor, there are opportunities to work together,” Coons said.
Coons has grown close to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs.
“I am the chair, but I call him my co-chair,” Coons said. “He’s a great guy. ... Personally, he’s one of the most engaging, positive people I have ever met. Someone I hope to be friends with long after we both leave this place.”
Isakson said that Coons is “a relationship guy. He likes to build coalitions and find common ground. I have some of the same propensities.”
Coons has also found Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to be a willing explorer of common ground. Blunt co-chairs the Senate Law Enforcement Caucus with Coons, who started the group.
“Sen. Blunt made the time to stop by [for a] a conversation with faith leaders that I hosted from 3:00 to 4:00 and I think, in part, he did that because he and I are co-chairs of the law enforcement caucus,” Coons said of a Wednesday meeting in his office.
“We have had a number of good conversations about different issues across a number of months,” Coons said. “It’s surprising how just a small gesture like that, an opening move, can lead to a friendship.”
Blunt said of Coons, “We don’t agree on everything, but we do agree that we have to figure out what we can agree on.”
Coons sees the caucus and relationship-building as investments that could pay legislative dividends down the road.
Another surprise for Coons was getting to know budget-hawk conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
Coons said he congratulated Coburn for standing up to anti-tax pundit Grover Norquist. Norquist is famous for urging Republicans to sign an anti-tax pledge. On one of the Sunday talk shows a few months ago, Coburn said the pledge should not stand in the way of what he believes is the right way forward for cutting the deficit.
“I was stunned he said that,” Coons said. “We were in session the next afternoon. I went over to him, and he didn’t really know me well, and I said ‘I want to shake your hand and thank you. That was brave. And when you do something like that, it makes it possible for someone in my party to do something brave as well, and we need more leadership here.’”
“We have gotten to know each other better and better,” Coons said. “I never would have guessed a year ago ... that I would be here and develop a genuine sense of respect for his values, for his priorities. I have actually voted with him several times, which I never would have expected.”
“We have plenty of differences,” Coons said. “But building that kind of respect for somebody ... makes a real difference.”
Despite being viewed as an accidental Senator by political watchers, Coons feels confident that, without O’Donnell’s involvement, he still could have beaten Castle, a person Coons has known for 30 years and calls a friend.
“I just saw in terms of Congressman Castle’s energy there was a sense that his party had moved to the right, and he really was no longer comfortable with the positions they were taking,” Coons said.