The freak show has come to staid, pedestrian Delaware, in the form of Christine O’Donnell and her litany of crazy. But while the national media and late-night comics focus on condoms, masturbation and witchcraft, the man who is likely to become the next Senator from the state has quietly gone about his business. Chris Coons has begun to attract wider attention because of the O’Donnell escapades, but he’s been running for this seat, mainly door-to-door, for six months. He’s largely run a campaign on the issues, with a wide range of opinions on policy, and the experience as New Castle County Executive (basically the mayor of the county with 2/3 of the population of Delaware) to back it up. I had the opportunity to talk with Coons about the race, the O’Donnell madness, and his specific positions on issues he could face shortly in the Senate.

On O’Donnell and the transformed election. “I never expected this to be a reality show but a serious campaign,” Coons said, bushing aside the many revelations of decades-old statements from his opponent, or the mountains-of-stupid mini-controversy about a joke he made in a college newspaper about being a “bearded Marxist.” Coons expected that the media glare would die down and turn away, especially since O’Donnell plans to never give another national interview. “We can get back to focusing in this campaign on what matters to Delaware. No one has ever asked me about my positions on the bizarre and obscure issues in national press. They ask me what I’m going to do about jobs, the economy, spending, bringing back manufacturing, two wars in Southwest Asia, our education system and the environment.” Coons also is not above drawing clear contrasts with O’Donnell on social issues. He blasted out his support of repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell yesterday, for example.

On the stimulus. Coons has been using the tactic of localizing the stimulus to talk about it on the campaign trail in effective ways. He said that he’s done lots of community picnics with question-and-answer sessions, and that people just need to have more thorough information about major initiatives like this. “On stimulus I tend to be practical and concrete. Here are the police officers, the 911 people, the fingerprint officer, the gang officer whose jobs we saved with the influx of money. If someone wants to say those are just government jobs, have at it. I think people agree they’re important and valuable.”

Coons gets specific in terms of investments from the Recovery Act in his community and what they have achieved. “In Wilmington we had a major expansion of our port facility, with 150 high-wage, high-skill construction jobs and about 15-20 permanent jobs, allowing for the importation of fresh orange juice. Instead of talking about green jobs, I talk about concrete investments in green energy putting plumbers pipefitters and engineers to work. People see that you get what they’re looking for.”

On fiscal conservatism. Coons’ first ad of the general election focuses on his record as County Executive, on cutting “wasteful spending” and balancing the county budget, and on returning the county to a AAA bond rating. “We did a $90 million dollar bond issue yesterday, and saved $1 million dollars in debt service. That’s an applause line in Delaware.”

But the issues he brings up next to this fiscal conservatism aren’t precisely the kinds that you see among some national figures. He has spoken out in favor of cutting outdated military weapons systems and bloated Big Ag subsidies. He opposes the idea of cutting entitlement benefits in programs like Social Security, saying that raising the retirement age or cutting benefits “are not choices I’m inclined to make.” And unlike some deficit peacocks, he’s perfectly consistent. For example, on the Bush tax cuts, he supports the “extension of middle-class tax relief,” but not for the people at the top 2%. And the savings for letting those expire need to go into more stimulus:

I think you can take the $700 billion dollars we were going to give to rich people, and use it for targeted job creation. I believe in a double-down manufacturing tax credit to team with the R&D tax credit, so that you get twice the tax break if you manufacture the good you created here in America. But we have to lessen the burden on our middle-class families.

Moreover, Coons would have the opportunity to directly affect these issues. The Delaware Senate seat is a special election, and the winner will replace Ted Kaufman immediately, in time for the lame duck session. So Coons, if he wins, will have an opportunity to vote on the deficit commission recommendations, tax policy, and more.

On trade policy and manufacturing. I hardly expect any Democrat anymore to talk about trade policy, but Coons has been more than willing to do so. He says that what we have done in both tax policy, by increasing inequality, and trade policy, have killed the middle class. “We’re setting up a society where everyone is driving Chinese cars and working as Wal-Mart greeters. It’s not a great vision. Quality jobs are what this country’s been built on. And there’s a palpable sense that’s been given away.” He wanted to stay concrete, with targeted measures for fair trade, manufacturing, innovation and small business, rather than (as a swipe against his opponent) ranting about liberty and the Founders. “Not that the founders and liberty aren’t important. But I’m running against someone whose economic platform is that the government has no role. No protection for the environment, no protection for investors, no protection for consumers, no promotion of public health.”

On financial reform. Coons told MSNBC that TARP “was passed in a hurry without any accountability, and hasn’t been administered properly.” This may sound off coming from a Senator running in Delaware, one of the banking headquarters for the nation. But Coons would be succeeding Ted Kaufman, who has become something of a folk hero in the financial reform community for his efforts to reduce the runaway size of the biggest financial firms. I asked Coons if he has sought the counsel of Kaufman on those issues, and he was effusive. “I have met repeatedly with Senator Kaufman, and he given me valuable insights and advice. There’s no one more qualified on these issues.”

Coons stressed that he thought the financial system needed to be “more transparent, more strong, more robust and more fair.” He promised to take a hard look at Brown-Kaufman, the bill which would reduce bank size, and he agreed that the Dodd-Frank bill did not fully deal with systemic risk and Too Big to Fail. “The crippling mortgage bubble took the efforts of Democrats and Republicans across two administrations, consumers and also Wall Street. It took a lot of people. They made real progress in Wall Street reform, I would have supported it, but we have to stay on top of Too Big to Fail.” He noted that trillions of dollars flowed into American markets during the financial crisis because of confidence that the US system was strong. If we don’t fix the problems, “we may not have that chance again,” he said.

David Dayen

David Dayen