By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 10:45 PM
Chris Coons was once one of the forgotten Democrats of the 2010 election cycle.
But now he's a presumed front-runner, as political handicappers shift Delaware's open Senate seat from "leaning R" to "leaning D" in the aftermath of Christine O'Donnell's stunning victory over Rep. Michael N. Castle in Tuesday's GOP primary.
Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Democrats will frame the choice in Delaware as "a clear centrist against an extremist."
Winning the seat, formerly occupied by Vice President Biden, "has always been important to us," Menendez said. But, he added, "our path to doing it is a lot clearer today than yesterday." By nominating O'Donnell, a "tea party"-backed candidate, he said, "Republicans fumbled the ball, and we picked it up."
The opening page of Coons's campaign Web site now features a large photo of O'Donnell. "Meet our GOP opponent," the site declares; earlier Wednesday, it went on to describe Coons as "a leader focused on creating jobs, not promoting bizarre conspiracy theories and an extreme social agenda." The text was later changed to emphasize the Democrat's opposition to "more dangerous off-shore drilling."
Coons currently serves as New Castle County executive and is well known in the more densely populated northern portion of the state. He presided over a fiscal crisis that required deep budget cuts - an ordeal that could bolster his appeal among independent voters who had been expected to break for Castle, a moderate Republican, a longtime congressman and a former governor of Delaware.
Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, on Wednesday morning announced a $42,000 donation to O'Donnell's campaign and said Republicans would challenge Coons's record as county executive, including spending increases and higher taxes imposed during his tenure.
"We remain committed to holding Democrat nominee New Castle County Executive Chris Coons accountable this November, as we inform voters about his record of driving his county to the brink of bankruptcy and supporting his party's reckless spending policies in Washington," Cornyn said in a statement.
A former lawyer, Coons holds a master's degree from Yale Divinity School and spent time in South Africa and Kenya doing relief work. He entered the Senate race after Biden's son, state Attorney General Beau Biden, declined to seek his father's old seat.
Both Bidens recruited Coons before Beau Biden made his intentions known. Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, a Delaware native, also leaned on his old friend to make the run, despite Castle's clear advantages.
In an interview last spring, Coons said he had been looking forward to a quiet end to his second term as county executive when the Bidens first contacted him. "This was going to be our perfect year," Coons said. "We were going to take a vacation."
Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) had predicted before Delaware's polls closed that Castle would win with relative ease, although he added, "I wouldn't bet my paycheck on it."
But whatever the outcome, Carper said, the ugly spat between Castle and O'Donnell is likely to benefit the Democrat. "I think a lot of people say, 'Beau Biden didn't run, Chris Coons is a throw-in' - but you know what, Chris Coons is a great candidate," Carper said.