Sep 15, 2010 11 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
WILMINGTON, Del. â€” Freshly minted Democratic Senate nominee Chris Coons is heeding a clear lesson from Christine O’Donnell’s stunning upset of Rep. Mike Castle in the GOP Senate primary here: Don’t pick a fight with the tea party.
On the first day of what amounts to a seven-week general election campaign, Coons steered clear of criticizing O’Donnell and her checkered past, rebuffed repeated questions about whether she’s outside the mainstream and appeared to rationalize her considerable feat, citing “an anxious, angry” electorate.
The New Castle County executive repeated the mantra that nothing had changed about the campaign he was running Wednesday â€” even though almost everything about the race’s dynamic had dramatically shifted.
“Christine O’Donnell is a different sort of Republican opponent in the general election than I had expected,” Coons said, surrounded by a swarm of local and national reporters outside Libby’s Restaurant in downtown Wilmington. “I respect the fact that Christine O’Donnell is someone who has stood up and run for office three times now. I look forward to getting to know her better.”
As the national press, pundits and even some Republican leaders continued to lament O’Donnell’s foibles, flaws and at times bizarre antics, Coons appeared to be taking the high road.
But where other eager candidates might have been unable to hold back from knocking Oâ€™Donnellâ€™s extreme views, Coons declined.
“That’s what the election’s for on Nov. 2. What I think is important is for both of us as candidates, the Republican and Democratic nominee, to put our ideas out there and to give Delawareans a chance to see what our experience is, what our background is, what our values are and what ideas we’ve got,” he said.
The furthest Coons would go in his cautious critique of O’Donnell, a former marketing executive and television commentator, was venturing that she doesn’t represent the “values and policy agenda” that are in the best interest of the First State. In a later interview, Coons ducked a question about whether O’Donnell was qualified to be a U.S. senator, instead emphasizing their “different backgrounds.”
“I look forward to a positive campaign, one that focuses on an agenda for getting America back on track, rather than sort of partisan, personal bickering,” Coons said, acknowledging he was “surprised” by how personal and negative the GOP primary became.
Coons, who has a law degree from Yale University and previously served as an attorney for one of the state’s largest manufacturing companies, also showered praise on Castle, whom he has known personally for 30 years.
In a one-on-one interview with POLITICO following his campaign event, Coons said that after watching Castle’s “classy, appropriate” concession o O’Donnell, he phoned the nine-term congressman to thank him for his four decades of service to the state.
“He is someone who I deeply respect and who I think has been a good and decent and honest public servant, and it was a private conversation, but I just thanked him for his service to our community. He is someone who I have a lot of admiration for,” he said.
Coons declined to discuss a possible endorsement from Castle. “It’s a private conversation, I’ll just leave it there for right now. I’d be grateful for the congressman’s encouragement and support in this campaign, but what I’m focused on is Delaware voters and their real needs.”
A Democratic aide in Delaware said the campaign did not expect any endorsement from Castle in the near future, but didn’t completely rule it out, depending on future developments.
“Chris hasn’t even shared with staff the conversation he had with him, other than to say Castle believes [O'Donnell] is so fatally flawed,” said the source.
An aide to Castle told POLITICO early Wednesday that the congressman would not be endorsing his GOP foe, dubbing O’Donnell “a con artist” who can rely on “out-of-state support” this fall. Neither Castle nor Coons has spoken to O’Donnell, according to campaign aides.
While Coons said the GOP primary failed to feature a constructive debate on ideas, he chalked up O’Donnell’s 6-point win to a wave of discontent stemming from economic uncertainty.
“A lot of them voted for change in 2008 but feel like they haven’t seen that change yet. I’d like to be the candidate who is about changing Washington in a positive way that reflects Delaware’s values,” he said.
Coons’s approach of extending the olive branch to moderates while initially eschewing a verbal back-and-forth could be complicated once O’Donnell’s general election approach becomes clearer.
He said his goal was to avoid the “personal attacks” that turn Delaware voters off, but did not rule out hitting back if O’Donnell employed some of the tactics she used in her race against Castle.
“I will do my level best to stay focused on a positive agenda that helps people see what I would bring to Washington. If there’s baseless personal attacks of the sort we saw in the Republican primary, I’ll respond to them. But I’m not the sort of person who wants to get into that. That’s not what Delawareans want,” he said. “This isn’t about picking fights with different groups from outside Delaware. This is about listening to and responding to the real needs of Delawareans.”
Despite a Public Policy Poll survey taken just days before the primary and released Wednesday showing Coons leading O’Donnell by 16 points out of the gate, the Democrat said, “I take nothing for granted.”
Coons is calling for a series of debates with O’Donnell and is expected to meet her for the first time Thursday evening at a candidate forum sponsored by the Jewish Foundation of Delaware.
Both candidates are expected to attend the 7 p.m. event, which will feature the nominees for Senate, Congress and other statewide offices.
A spokeswoman for O’Donnell did not return a request for comment, but the foundation said it expected her to attend.
“Before we knew the outcome of the primary, she said yes. So now that she won, we’re pretty sure she will be,” Michele Burke of the Jewish Federation told POLITICO Wednesday afternoon.