Correction to This Article
In this article about Democratic candidates for Senate who are casting themselves as reform-minded outsiders, the pronoun "his" was incorrectly used in one instance to refer to one of the candidates, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. Carnahan is a woman.

Democratic senatorial candidates vie to be seen as outsiders

Democrat Chris Coons, who is running for the Senate in Delaware, said he is wary of an "often dysfunctional" Washington.
Democrat Chris Coons, who is running for the Senate in Delaware, said he is wary of an "often dysfunctional" Washington. (Carla Varisco/wilmington News Journal Via Associated Press)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010; 12:00 AM

Chris Coons wants to be a Democratic Senate incumbent. But don't mistake him for one just yet.

Coons, the New Castle County executive in Delaware, is one of a handful of Democrats vying to win races in open seats that could swing the balance of power in the Senate. These challengers are seizing on the sour national mood to cast themselves as reform-minded outsiders, willing to drive a wedge between themselves and Democratic leaders as they vow to shake up the political establishment that their party controls.

In Missouri, Democratic candidate Robin Carnahan pronounced "I'm disappointed" when President Obama released his budget early this month. "Missouri families have to balance their checkbooks, and our government should be no different," Carnahan lectured the White House.

In Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal shrugged off the prospect of an Obama campaign visit as "an open question" and has steered clear of Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, whose poor reelection prospects contributed to his decision to retire. "I have been independent of Senator Dodd and everyone else in Washington," Blumenthal, the state attorney general, told Yale University students last week.

It is this message the public is demanding, said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin. "This is a change electorate, much as it was in 2008, and the thing they want to change is how Washington works," he said.

Coons was encouraged to enter the Senate race in Delaware by Vice President Biden, after Biden's son Beau decided not to run. But Coons said he has grown increasingly frustrated with what he views as his party's inadequate response to urgent problems. He thinks the Democratic health-care bill is overly ambitious, and he complains that federal stimulus funds are flowing too slowly.

Having battled the economic crisis from the front line of local government, Coons lamented: "I saw a Washington that was often dysfunctional and more often part of the problem than part of the solution."

This outsider formula is hardly original. Republican Scott P. Brown scored a huge upset in the Massachusetts special senatorial election last month by playing down his party affiliation and casting himself as a feisty independent who shares voter contempt for the status quo.

Nor is the party establishment discouraging its challengers from adopting Brown's approach. "If he can do it, why can't our Democrats?" said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

To be sure, the party is desperate for a winning formula. The landscape is so volatile that the Democrats' 59 to 41 Senate majority may be at stake. But Republicans may be providing an assist to Democratic candidates in key seats where senators are retiring, by fielding challengers who have strong Washington connections and who will have trouble making the case that they are outsiders.

In Missouri, Carnahan's rival is Roy Blunt, a former longtime member of the GOP House leadership whose wife is a Washington lobbyist. Blumenthal will face former congressman Rob Simmons, assuming Simmons defeats professional wrestling heiress Linda McMahon in the GOP primary.

In Ohio, the GOP pick is Rob Portman, a former congressman who also served in George W. Bush's administration. Both candidates vying for the Democratic nomination are state officials, and they are tying Portman to Bush administration economic policies.

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