Delaware: Can Coons Hold Off the O'Donnell Juggernaut?

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Rob Carr / AP (2)

Delaware Senate candidates Republican Christine O'Donnell and Democrat Chris Coons

Thanks to Christine O'Donnell and the Tea Party, a lot of Democrats are confident Joe Biden's former Delaware Senate seat is now in the bag. But their celebration may be premature. O'Donnell has already raised more than $1 million since her primary win, and while a competitive race is likely to cost several million dollars, she might not have much trouble, given the national support she'll be getting from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin.

Chuckling Democrats would be wise to remember a woman named Martha Coakley was once considered a shoo-in in another reliably Democratic state, Massachusetts, only to become the first major political scalp of Tea Party politics. But Coakley turned out to be a lousy candidate and Scott Brown caught the world unawares.

Things will be different this time. While some senior Republicans, including Karl Rove, seem convinced that O'Donnell can't win, not all Democrats (including Biden himself) agree. One party strategist with extensive Senate campaign experience told me after her win that he thinks O'Donnell's star power with the far right might enable her to raise money and generate enough enthusiasm to pull off an upset.

One reason this strategist said he's not more worried, however, is that he believes O'Donnell's (nationally) unknown Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, is no Martha Coakley. "He's very talented," said my source. And he's not the only one to feel that way. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid has already raved about Coons — perhaps to comedic excess — as "my pet ... my favorite candidate."

Coons' résumé may not sport anything as colorful as O'Donnell's abstinence and antimasturbation crusading. But he did campaign for Ronald Reagan as a teenager before labeling himself, in a much-quoted-on-the-right college essay, a "bearded Marxist." Now 47, Coons has served in county government for the past decade, with the last six years as executive of New Castle County — one of Delaware's three counties and home to about 500,000 of the state's roughly 900,000 residents. His pedigree may be easy for a Tea Partyer to sneer at — undergrad at Amherst, law and divinity school at Yale — but in a relatively prosperous Northeastern state like Delaware (where the unemployment rate is high, but lower than the national average), it may be an asset. (And remember: at least two other Tea Party darlings, Joe Miller in Alaska and Ken Buck in Colorado, also have Ivy League degrees.)

Unlike some other Democrats recently running from it, Coons openly supports a cap-and-trade plan to combat global warming; sounds fairly conventional on education reform; and describes himself as a "Truman Democrat," which has a slightly hawkish ring but could actually mean almost anything short of Kucinich-ism. (It's hard to find anything Coons has to say about Afghanistan beyond some milquetoasty criticism of Stanley McChrystal's infamous comments to Rolling Stone.) On MSNBC's Hardball Wednesday, Coons said he would have voted for both the health care bill and financial regulatory reform. He has also made an interesting proposal for a lifetime ban on Senate lobbying by former Senators, something unlikely to endear him to his potential new colleagues.

The big picture, however, is that this campaign will unfold in a state that went 62-37 for Obama in 2008, thanks in part to the place of local hero Joe Biden on the ticket. Biden already has plans to campaign and raise money for Coons. And polling shows Coons now with a double-digit lead. So Coons could probably get away with being just an ordinary candidate. Especially if the bet reflected by the unusual photo of his opponent on his campaign home page is the right one: just keep people talking about Christine O'Donnell.