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Interview with Delaware Senator-Elect Chris Coons

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - November 11, 2010

JIM LEHRER: Next: another of our conversations with November 2 election winners.

Earlier this week, we talked with incoming Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Tonight: an interview with a Democrat headed to the U.S. Senate.

Judy Woodruff begins with some background.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrats had fewer reasons to smile than Republicans on election night, but Delaware's Chris Coons was one of them.

CHRIS COONS (D-Del.), senator-elect: And, so, tonight, I pledge to you, to all the working families across Delaware, that I will work tirelessly to get our state and our nation back on track.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Coons, the New Castle County executive, won the Senate race by 16 points over Republican Christine O'Donnell, a Tea Party sensation.

Coons, 47, was a Republican himself as a young man, but switched parties in college, went on to earn degrees in both law and divinity from Yale, worked with the poor, and practiced law, before jumping into politics.

Early on in the campaign, Coons was given little chance, since the prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination was popular Delaware Congressman and former Governor Mike Castle. But the Tea Party-backed O'Donnell shocked the political establishment by upsetting Castle in the fall GOP primary and transforming Coons into the front-runner.

O'Donnell was undone in part by her colorful outspoken past, including a remark on a 1990s TV show that she had dabbled in witchcraft, a point she magnified in this TV ad.

CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (R-Del.), former senatorial candidate: I'm not a witch. I'm nothing you have heard. I'm you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Coons, meanwhile, was buoyed by national Democrats, getting joint visits from President Obama and Vice President Biden, who held this Senate seat for 36 years.

U.S. VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: This guy has a backbone like a ramrod. I kid him, he's got a brain bigger than his skull, and he's got a heart to match both.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since the Delaware contest was a special election to fill the remaining four years of Biden's term, Coons will take his Senate seat next week, two months ahead of most freshmen.

And I'm joined by Democratic senator-elect Chris Coons. He is in Wilmington. Thank you for joining us. And congratulations.

CHRIS COONS: Thank you, Judy. I'm excited to be on. I appreciate the chance to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, forgive me for starting out with this, but you were originally considered a real long shot here, not only because you were the, I guess, second choice of your own party, the Democrats, because everybody expected Vice President Biden's son to run, but also because Mike Castle, the former governor, the congressman, was expected to -- to blow you away.

Now, you did win, but are you the accidental senator?

CHRIS COONS: Well, Judy, I think I worked very hard in my campaign.

Obviously, my opponent changed on September 14 with the outcome of the Republican primary, but the issues that I focused on from back in January, when I first considered getting into this campaign, didn't change up until Election Day.

I listened. I worked hard. I went up and down the state. I connected with voters. And I ran a campaign that really focused on their concerns, on getting people back to work, on fixing our economy, on helping recreate manufacturing jobs, and on tackling the deficit and debt.

And I was confident I had a strong chance against Congressman Castle, someone I have known 30 years and who I respect. But, again, in the general election, I had a quite different type of opponent. And I'm pleased with the outcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of the economy, one of the first things you're going to be asked to vote on when you take your seat is whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, as well as for the middle class.

Do you think they should be extended for everyone, including the wealthy?

CHRIS COONS: Well, Judy, I think we should extend tax relief for the vast majority of Americans, for the 98 percent of folks who earn less than $250,000 a year. And I think it's important for us to come to a bipartisan resolution of this question.

I have said in the campaign -- and I intend to move in this direction as senator -- that I'm willing to compromise on extending those income tax cuts for a number of years to higher-income individuals, if we can also get an agreement that extends other tax relief or other tax cuts that I'm convinced have a real impact on job creation.

I have talked a lot about the research and development tax credit, about expanded tax credits for manufacturing, and about some of the other tax fixes that are also on the table for expiration at the end of this year.

I think we need to look hard at all of them as a group, because every extension of a tax cut will add to our deficit and add to our debt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned...

CHRIS COONS: The best way to fix our deficit is to grow new jobs. And I'm looking for information about how we can best accomplish that with tax incentives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned -- you used the word compromise. There's been a lot of talk in Washington about whether President Obama should move to the center, should compromise, to get some agreement with Republicans. Do you think that's a good thing for him to do?

CHRIS COONS: I think we're going to have to find bipartisan solutions to a number of the big issues facing our country.

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