WILMINGTON, Del. — Chris Coons recognizes that his repeated dalliances with Republicans could aggravate his party’s left wing enough to put his job at risk. But he can’t help himself.
On issues from immigration to judicial nominations to Iran, the Delaware Democrat is cutting against his party’s leftward shift and building close relationships with Republicans that have heightened his influence in the clubby Senate. Coons is fashioning himself in the mold of the senator he succeeded — former Vice President Joe Biden — to the frustration of his party’s restive liberal base.
“It could happen to me,” Coons said of a primary challenge. “I’m just not worried about it.”
The 54-year-old’s most recent headline-making show of courtesy to the GOP came when he changed his vote from ‘no’ to ‘present’ to help an absent Republican colleague and speed up committee approval of Mike Pompeo’s secretary of state nomination. Coons’ move last month brought tears to the eyes of Foreign Relations panel chief Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who praised his friend’s human decency.
In fact, Coons’ has long had a penchant for compromise and cross-aisle collegiality. The second-term senator, who won his first full term in 2010 after a divisive tea party candidate knocked off a favored moderate Republican, acknowledged in an interview here that a similar insurgent force on the left may someday target him.
But he tries not to think about it while traveling the globe with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) or trying (and failing) to save the Senate filibuster for Supreme Court nominations.
Coons’ affinity for compromise doesn’t mesh with the combative posture Democrats have taken under Trump. But if Coons can survive a liberal base that has sometimes lashed him for his bipartisan tendencies, he has a chance to become one of the Senate’s historic dealmakers — a role once filled by the former vice president whose name is on the Amtrak station through which he often commutes home.
“Look, I’d be thrilled if at some point — probably a decade or more in the future — people saw me as having the same level of passion and commitment to my core principles, yet the ability to have and sustain meaningful friendships across the aisle,” Coons said of Biden.
Some Republicans say Coons is already well on his way there. He has worked with Corker to give Congress a vote on the Iran nuclear deal and spent months toiling with Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) to steer their bill protecting Special Counsel Robert Mueller through the Senate Judiciary Committee.
During a recent congressional recess, when many lawmakers find an escape with their families, Coons spent one morning fielding calls from Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to hash out potential compromises on immigration and Iran.
“Vice President Biden and Chris Coons have a lot in common,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a good friend of Coons who was delayed in arriving at the Pompeo vote by his best friend’s funeral. “But Chris Coons has the advantage of having an off switch.”
For the moment, Coons is working to leverage his nascent power as a bipartisan broker. Before extolling the virtues of Delaware chicken and ice cream, Coons recounted talks with Lankford about overhauling the temporary protected status program as part of an immigration deal that would include a path to citizenship for undocumented Dreamers.
“I keep saying to him: ‘I respect you, I think you’re a person of good will. I think you actually genuinely want to get this done,’” Coons said of Lankford. “And, ‘Are you kidding me? This list of demands is ridiculous.’”
The same spirit of genteel disagreement goes for Coons’ relationship with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), from whom he rents a room on Capitol Hill for the nights he can’t get home to his wife and three children. The far more liberal Merkley “is just sort of puzzled by me,” Coons said with a chuckle.
Liberal activists plainly want to see Coons behave more like Merkley, blocking Trump’s agenda wherever possible. Unlike red-state Democrats who may feel compelled to break from the party because of the makeup of their electorate, Coons has no such rationale.
"Yes, he has taken progressive votes, but he has also taken some bad votes and led the charge on some compromises that have not fit the moment,” said Angel Padilla, policy director at the liberal activist group Indivisible, who criticizes Coons’ support for financial deregulation and centrist immigration legislation.
“It’s not just reaching across the aisle,” Padilla added. “It’s that you are compromising in a way that will harm Americans.”
Coons underscored his reluctance to embrace the “resistance” wing of the party over the past few months as other Democrats tried to turn the Mueller protection bill into a partisan cudgel. But Coons and Tillis made a pact: No more Democrats can cosponsor the bill until Republicans join them.
The agreement frustrated some in Coons’ party, but Tillis said he intentionally chose his partner because he knew the Delawarean wouldn’t buckle.
“He was in my judgement, the one who would not take to the political grandstanding,” said Tillis, who has taken hits from his own party for pushing the special counsel bill. “In a state that’s clearly Democratic leaning, he’s got to be more concerned with pressure he gets than I do, to be honest with you.”
Still, Coons has a reliably liberal voting record on most issues. And he took his daughter Maggie to the Women’s March last year, tapping directly into the vein of anti-Trump liberalism. What separates Coons from many others in his party, and gives him under-the-radar currency in the Senate, is his aversion to knee-jerk opposition to the president.
In fact, Coons sounds a little like an endangered incumbent when he says Democrats should be “willing to work with President Trump” when possible.
“It is necessary, but not sufficient, to be the opposition party challenging Trump’s excesses,” Coons said, acknowledging worry “that the average American doesn’t clearly know what we stand for.”
That interest in productive bipartisanship is a signature Biden touch. Biden’s friendship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was a critical emergency release valve for steering Washington away from the 2012 “fiscal cliff.”
And Biden credits Coons for taking up where he left off. Politics “has become too mean, too petty, too coarse. Chris gets that,” Biden said through a spokesman. “And I’m proud to see him representing our state well by trying to break through it.”
Beyond bringing Corker, the Foreign Relations panel chairman, to the verge of tears, Coons’ move to change his vote on Pompeo elicited the sort of GOP praise that rarely goes public in an age of gloves-off political combat. Vice President Mike Pence called him immediately after the vote to offer kind words — a rare move for the conservative vice president.
“That was a profile in courage, I think. He may catch a lot of flak for that,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) of Coons’ courtesy toward Isakson. “And that made a big impression on those of us on the Republican side.”
Even political brawlers like Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) couldn’t help but laud him, and offer a little advice about what it’s like to be attacked by partisans who don’t understand the personal nature of the Senate.
“I told him there’s folks on the left and the right that will attack anybody that they don’t deem politically expedient,” Cornyn said. “But there’s more at stake.”
Coons said he thinks his treatment of Pompeo, whom he voted against on the floor, helped the Mueller protection bill score a bipartisan win in the Judiciary Committee. Partisan tensions remain high there after panel chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) worked with McConnell to block President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.
“It is hard” to maintain trust in Grassley after the Garland episode, Coons said. “But you have to be willing to have a really frustrating, really upsetting, really disappointing experience and be open to the possibility of working together.”
That attitude makes Coons a natural fit for the top Democratic spot on the Senate Ethics Committee (alongside Isakson as chairman), which requires him to pass judgment on his own colleagues; the panel recently issued a searing admonition of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) for failing to disclose gifts from a close friend and donor.
Coons was also a key member of the moderate coalition that offered Democratic leaders a way out of February’s government shutdown over immigration, to the frustration of liberals on and off the Hill.
Back home, Coons said he’s heard some gripes but mostly praise for his efforts at conciliation. One constituent stopped Coons on Market Street, Wilmington’s main thoroughfare, and volunteered that the senator’s critics were “f---ing idiots.”
Coons, ever the diplomat, warned him that reporters were recording his remarks.