Chris Coons: elected to New Castle County Council in 2000. Since then he has served two terms as county executive.
Mike Castle: elected to the Delaware House of Representatives in 1966. (Coons was three years old.) Since then Castle has run successfully for the state Senate, for lieutenant governor, governor and, in 1992, for Congress, where he has served nine terms—longer than any U. S. representative in First State history. Over 44 years, he has brushed aside opponents by comfortable margins in 14 elections.
Coons and Castle—long-time acquaintances, almost neighbors in Wilmington, both graduates of Tower Hill School—are facing off in a special election for the U.S. Senate. The race has major implications across the country—and, if outside forces gain sway, it may become a departure from the usually collegial tenor of political campaigns in Delaware.
The winner in November will serve the four years remaining in the term of Joe Biden, who resigned to become vice president. The Senate is divided 59-41 in favor of the Democrats, one seat shy of the 60-vote super-majority needed to avoid filibuster, the main roadblock to passing legislation. The Democrats are vulnerable in seven or eight Senate races across the country, including one for Barack Obama’s old Senate seat in Illinois. Republicans won the late Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts in January. Every seat is thus crucial to each party, especially one that has been Democratic since 1972, when Biden nudged out Republican U.S. Senator J. Caleb Boggs.
The similarities between that race and this year’s are striking. Back then, Biden was a first-term county councilman running against a popular incumbent. Boggs was completing his second term as senator after serving three terms as U.S. Representative and two terms as governor. Biden turned 30 that year. Boggs was 61. The challenger won with a narrow 1.4 percent margin.
This year’s aspirants are a bit longer of tooth: Coons is 46, Castle 71. Age aside, Castle is no Boggs. Boggs was a reluctant candidate; he ran only after President Richard Nixon helicoptered into Wilmington to schmooze him. Castle is a dedicated and energetic campaigner—the clear favorite in early polls. His name recognition in Delaware probably is matched only by Biden’s.
“A huge percentage of the electorate has met [Castle], and they’ve pulled the lever for him,” says Dave Burris, a Republican leader from Sussex County. “Once people pull that lever or push that button, that creates kind of a bond between them and that candidate. And having done it so many times for Mike Castle, they’re going to need a reason not to vote for him.”
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In Congress, Castle has served on several important committees. He’s worked for welfare reform, a balanced budget, the Crime Bill, No Child Left Behind and campaign finance reform. A moderate, he drew attention for breaking with President George W. Bush by advocating stem cell research. Castle is adept at getting and keeping supporters, and supporters of all political persuasions. One of the most frequent adjectives applied to him is “affable.”
“Maybe his biggest strength is that he has very few enemies,” says John Flaherty, lobbyist and former longtime head of Common Cause of Delaware. “To be in office this long and have so few enemies is a real achievement.”
The son of a DuPont patent lawyer, Castle was born and raised in Wilmington. After graduating from Tower Hill, where he played basketball, he attended Hamilton College, then Georgetown Law School, after which he joined the Wilmington firm of Connolly Bove Lodge. He became a deputy attorney general in1965 and was elected to the Delaware House in 1966. Since then his only break from politics was the four years from 1976 to 1980, when he formed a law firm with Carl Schnee, a prominent Democrat.
In his younger days, Castle maintained a strong presence in the Delaware sports and social scenes. He formed teams in local basketball and touch football leagues. (One gridiron opponent remembers him as a fierce competitor whose skills were exceeded by his scrappiness), and in the 1970s he and Schnee were partners in the Bottle & Cork, the popular bar in Dewey Beach. He came late to marriage, wedding Jane DiSabatino in 1992. They have no children.
Also in 1992, Castle and Democratic Congressman Tom Carper in essence switched jobs. Term limits required Castle to retire as governor, so he ran for Carper’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Carper became the Democratic candidate for governor. Both won handily.
Castle and Coons aren’t quite so chummy, but their race is unlikely to produce many fireworks—at least from the candidates themselves.
Outside forces may not be so respectful. A Supreme Court ruling in January loosened campaign finance restrictions on corporations and unions. That could bring big advertising dollars into the state.
Flaherty is among those who predicts some nasty TV spots, similar to the ones that appeared on Philadelphia stations during last year’s heated race for governor in New Jersey.
“Advertising money goes a long way here, particularly downstate,” Flaherty says. He foresees many spots on WBOC (channel 16) and WMDT (channel 47), which serve Kent and Sussex counties out of Salisbury, Maryland.
Flaherty expects Coons, who has only run in New Castle County, to spend most of his ad funds south of the canal, where he’s a virtual unknown.
“He’s got his work cut out for him. But keep in mind, Biden only ran countywide once [before opposing Boggs], and Coons has run countywide three times. I’m not saying Coons is going to duplicate what Biden accomplished, but it can be done. It’s amazing how people can change their minds really quickly with an effective ad campaign.”
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Says Burris, “If I’m out there with $10 million saying you’re a bad guy, and you’re out there with $3 million saying you’re not, I’m probably right,” he says. “That’s a sad, sad thing to say, but when you have voters who are busy with mortgages, kids and T-ball practice, they don’t necessarily take the time to look into what these guys are about. That being the case, negative ads make a difference, sometimes a big difference.”
Dave Anderson, editor of delawarepolitics.net, a conservative Website, predicts ad dollars will pour in if the race looks to be at all close. “It will start becoming clear in August which races are in play around the country,” Anderson says. “If Castle has a 25-point lead, then the money will probably go to races elsewhere, like California, New York or Pennsylvania.”
Both candidates are distancing themselves from anything smacking of the negative. “I worry about it, and I believe Chris worries about it,” says Castle. “I basically present a positive campaign. I present my ideas and concepts, and defend the attacks that will inevitably come. I don’t focus on my opponent unduly in these campaigns. I try to convince people of my own record and what I’ve been able to do.”
Coons says he already has reached out to one group that may create attack ads and asked them not to, for a practical reason. “I frankly think it backfires,” he says. “And I think people who aren’t from Delaware think they would be helping through these ads, and I don’t think Delawareans like or respond well to personal attacks or purely negative campaigns. I think they expect us to campaign hard, but I intend to focus on the issues and our voting record.”
A competitive campaign for U.S. Senate costs about $5 million in Delaware. Carper spent $4.6 million when he ousted longtime Senator Bill Roth in 2000. By early April, Castle had amassed about $2.3 million, while Coons reported $635,000 in donations.
Most observers portray Coons as the toughest competition Delaware’s only congressman has faced in a long time. While Castle is “affable,” the favorite adjective for Coons seems to be “smart.”
After graduating from Tower Hill nearly a quarter-century after Castle, Coons went on to collect impressive academic credentials. He was a double major—chemistry and political science—at Amherst College. He then earned a degree from Yale Law School, snagged a master’s in ethics from Yale’s Divinity School, and entertained thoughts of becoming a Presbyterian minister. Instead, he went to work at W.L. Gore as in-house counsel for eight years, and worked for several non-profits, including the Council for the Homeless, the “I Have a Dream” Foundation and the South African Council of Churches. He and his wife, Annie, have three children: twins Michael and Jack and daughter Maggie.
Coons’ first elective position was as a delegate from Wilmington to the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. After winning a seat on New Castle County Council in 2000, he was elected to two terms as county executive. Coming into office on the heels of the scandal-ridden Tom Gordon-Sherry Freebery regime, Coons said his job was “to clean this place up.” He cut $130 million in spending, achieved a AAA bond rating for the county, imposed strict new ethical standards, and launched a Safe Streets partnership to remove violent parole offenders from neighborhoods.
As county executive, he displayed a talent for the minutia of government, a talent some believe foretells his future.
“Chris Coons is an extraordinarily bright guy and a policy wonk,” says Rick Jensen, afternoon talk show host on Wilmington radio station WDEL. “He can talk with you about sewage policies and placement and usage. I think he would enjoy working in a federal agency where he can make a meaningful contribution to national policy.”
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Jensen thus dares to voice a theory that some have hinted at: Coons’ candidacy is a way of paying his dues to the national party so that, if he loses, he’ll have earned a job in the Obama administration. Liberal Geek, an editor of delawareliberal.net, goes even further. “It will be interesting to see,” he says, “whether the Bidens get out and support Chris openly and attend events, or whether they will just bide their time, let Castle win, and let him retire in four years, when he’s 75, and Beau can take the opportunity to run.”
Joe Biden’s son, Attorney General Beau Biden, announced in January that he would concentrate on his duties in the Department of Justice instead of running for his father’s seat, which many expected him to do. Soon after the announcement, Beau, his father and other prominent Democrats asked Coons to run.
Coons denies any would-be Biden succession plan and states unequivocally that not only can he win but he will win.
The economy and the effect of the stimulus package figure to be major issues in the campaign. Coons will emphasize that Castle voted against the stimulus, which, he says, “was a critical, strategic investment that stopped the rapid slide of our economy into a second great depression.” He also says the Republican Party “has moved much farther to the right than Delaware’s very centrist core values,” so his campaign will portray Castle as a true Republican, not the RINO—Republican in name only—that some have labeled the moderate congressman.
Castle seems almost to embrace the label, citing his ability “to work with everybody. By everybody,” he says, “I mean not only Republicans, Democrats and independents, but mayors, county and state officials, businesspeople. I’ve always done that, always kept my ear to the ground.”
Moderate lawmakers like Castle are a dying breed, according to Dr. Joseph Pika, professor of political science at UD. “Washington needs more of them,” Pika says. “That’s the way to get things done. Castle tends to want to solve problems, not take ideological stands.”
The Coons camp is hoping for a big voter turnout in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 3:2 ratio. But big turnouts in a mid-term election are rare. The Coons people know they face an uphill battle against the juggernaut that is Castle, who is viewed almost as an incumbent, and able to hit the ground running in a switch from the House to the Senate.
Coons notes that he wrestled competitively at Tower Hill, which taught him “to endure pain with grace.”
Come November 2, that lesson may come in handy.
On the other hand, David did vanquish Goliath.