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Rumble in Delaware: Chris Coons v. Christine O’Donnell

Sachyn Mital

Democrat Chris Coons squares off against Republican Tea Party media phenom Christine ("I'm Not a Witch") O’Donnell in the Delaware Senate debate.

Delaware Senate Debate: 13.Oct.2010 – University of Delaware, Newark


Christine O’Donnell’s victory in the Republican primary for the Delaware U.S. Senate seat over nine-term Representative Mike Castle really stirred the political pot. O’Donnell is a Tea Party candidate with the backing of former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Her victory has drawn broad attention to the tiny state of Delaware (2009 est pop. 885,122). In the past couple of weeks, national news programs have broadcast from this state, which lacks its own network affiliated station. Rachel Maddow televised her show live from the Deer Park Tavern, a local bar/former lodging noted for hosting Edgar Allen Poe on one evening long ago. The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi recorded a segment, “Divided Delaware”, showing the cultural dichotomy between “Northern” and “Southern” voters within the state. University of Delaware college students are abuzz with all the attention Newark’s main street and campus have gotten.

But, sometime in the summer, UD’s Center for Political Communication and Director Ralph Begleiter had the foresight to arrange debates between the as-of-then undetermined U.S. Senate candidates at the University. Unfortunately, it hadn't planned for the huge spike in attention and only reserved the smaller Mitchell Hall instead of the larger Bob Carpenter Center. Now, seeing CNN’s truck parked outside the auditorium for a live broadcast and having a “pre-game” with Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room, Delaware students are witnessing firsthand their place at the “epicenter of politics”.

Republican candidate, Christine O’Donnell was relatively unknown and untested on the political battlefield. Pinpointing her education is troublesome and lest I make an error, I shall avoid that minefield. She is an evangelical Christian, pro-life and a Tea Party member as mentioned. She has some knocks against her for mistakes made filing her taxes, for paying rent on her home from campaign coffers and for reportedly having classified information claiming China has machinations to take over America. Her first campaign ad begins with her declaring “I’m not a witch” and was recently parodied on Saturday Night Live.

Democratic candidate, Chris Coons, has a more sturdy background and also a small bio available. He earned his law degree from Yale and has worked as New Castle County Executive in Delaware for six years. An article of his from 1985 entitled, “Chris Coons: The Making of a Bearded Marxist” has drawn contention from opponents though the title is exaggeration. In it, he highlights how his political attitudes changed after a study abroad experience at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

Why Mike Castle did not pull a Lieberman (I-CT) and run for Senate as an independent? He certainly held strong support with voters and has achieved a good deal of political clout. But Castle humbly accepted his loss and avoided becoming a spectacle; after receiving the results, he said, “The voters in the Republican primary have spoken and I respect that decision."

Going into the debates, Coons holds a double-digit lead over O’Donnell in the polls. Though neither has serious experience on the campaign trail, Coons has held a public position. O’Donnell on the other hand has shied away from interviews, but is likely to set her position forth during this public debate. So, with its two relatively green candidates thrust into the national spotlight, Delaware will witness these two square off in their first debate moderated by Delaware First Media Vice President Nancy Karibjanian with CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer as co-moderator.

Debate Pregame:

Prior to the debate, Blitzer recorded his show from outside Smith Hall with Mitchell as his backdrop. In the background, both candidates’ supporters stood waving banners, chanting and mocking the opponent, shouts of “bearded Marxist” were heard and groups of witches were abound, but those for Coons seemed to outnumber O’Donnell’s with just a cursory glance. However gay rights supporters outnumbering all the rest, offering some support for Coons, but mostly taking stabs at O’Donnell’s platform. The vocal chords of chant leader, prompting the exchange, “What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Now!”, were noticeably deteriorating.

Public tickets for the event were distributed within ten minutes and I wasn't one of the lucky recipients. So, I sat amongst students and overflow media watching it from a lecture hall.

Debate Highlights/Bullets:

Students laughed after the first time O’Donnell offered to post statistics on her website.

O’Donnell emphasized the fact that Harry Reid (D-NV), embroiled in a close Senate race of his own, called Coons his “pet”. Coons then distanced himself from the term by retorting that he is “going to be the bull dog for Delaware”.

Coons avoided answering whether or not teachers unions were too powerful. He also wanted illegal immigrants to “learn English” on the course to earn residency.

Blitzer brought O’Donnell’s outrageous past remarks up a couple of times, asking her why she started off the ad with “I’m not a witch” and what knowledge did she have about China’s plan to take over America.

Following a question from a student about abortion, Coons, surprisingly (or maybe not?), said he supports a woman’s right to choose but is “personally opposed to abortion”.

O’Donnell made a tenuous link for cap and trade policies to the profit of Coons’s family business, Gore, makes some sort of membrane used to make fuel cells.

Debate Analysis:

Chris Coons seemed the stronger candidate because he offered concrete examples and readily stated his position. He was willing to negotiate with the Taliban to create a government in Afghanistan in a hypothetical scenario, unequivocally wanted to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and wanted “full disclosure of campaign contributions”.

Christine O’Donnell came across somewhat knowledgeable though she often took mainstream Republican positions on military/security issues and about activist judges. She tried to proclaim her allegiance to “the voters of Delaware” as an outsider to politics but those partisan talking points made it difficult to see her as any different. Also, she avoided taking a stance, particularly avoiding stating a position on evolution and was unable to come up with “recent” Supreme Court decisions she opposed (though “recent” may have been a poor descriptive).

O’Donnell called Coons jealous for not having his own SNL clip, earning laughs from students around me. Also, likely playing off the “pet” nickname, O’Donnell suggested Coons would walk the same line as Obama and Reid and just use rubber-stamp spending bills. And though she tried to shake off the witch comments and move forward, O’Donnell brought Coons’s Marxist article into public awareness.

However, Coons was frequently tactless in disparaging O’Donnell. He repeated the phrase “there’s so much to respond to” or that he did not understand her stance going so far as to say “if you can reconcile all those comments, you're an even more talented reporter than I think you are Nancy”. He also jabbed at O’Donnell and “was sorry” she didn't attend an earlier debate at a hospital. These impetuous outbursts made him seem too dismissive of an opponent who has raised quite a bit of money.

Following the debates, representatives from both campaigns answered questions from the press. O’Donnell’s representative claimed the Supreme Court decision on Kelo v. City of New London (regarding about eminent domain) was something she opposed. Then two University of Delaware political science professors, Dr. Jason Mycoff (seen in The Daily Show segment) and Dr. David C. Wilson (with the Center for Political Communications) offered additional analysis. It turns out neither candidate earned a strong affirmative win. That means Delaware voters are left to their own devises in deciding who to elect Senator in the upcoming weeks.

Links/Other Media:

Chris Coons

Coons’s Bearded Marxist Article

Christine O’Donnell

I’m Not a Witch Ad

SNL Parody Ad

UD Center for Political Communication

UD Review article about The Daily Show

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