On Friday, Delaware Sen. Chris Coons—one of the staunchest moderates in the Senate who was labeled “the GOP’s favorite Democrat” by Politico last year—appeared on a panel at the University of Notre Dame Law School in Indiana along with two former colleagues, Sens. Jeff Flake and Joe Donnelly.
Near the end of the panel, Coons was asked a question about increased partisanship in the Senate, a feature of the chamber he’s frequently criticized in the past. Coons responded by appearing to question—and not particularly sounding optimistic about—whether or not it will ever be possible for the Senate to both be diverse and functional.
Near the end of the conversation, an unidentified speaker takes the podium to prompt the three former colleagues—Donnelly lost his seat in 2018, while Flake chose to retire—on the issue of partisanship in the Senate. “I just want to throw out two other ways in which that period was different and see what you think about the possible effects on partisanship,” the speaker says. The speaker then makes an initial point about how, in less partisan times, the Democratic Party had a near-lock on control of Congress, and thus elections didn’t take on the same “do or die” significance they do today, before going into a second question.
“I also ask what you think about the fact that, in the good old days, we also had a Congress that was a lot more homogenous,” the speaker says. “Didn’t have very many women, very few people of color, there were large swaths of the American population that were systematically excluded from political power and influence, and so maybe it was easier to get together when only some voices were being heard in the political system. And now that we hopefully are allowing more and different voices to be heard, that itself takes some work to resolve and compromise.”
The thing that has contributed most in the Senate to the grinding down of our ability to function and compromise is that control of the Senate has gone back and forth with some regularity, and it’s within just a few seats. Now, I will also say, we have both leaders of our caucuses and members of our caucuses who are all too willing to go and campaign against the folks who are the ones most willing to compromise because those are the ones easiest to defeat. I currently have legislation that I’m trying to advance with literally all five of the most vulnerable Republicans...if you stop legislating with the very people who are at risk of losing their seat because they’re bipartisan, then...how do you expect the thing to get any better?
What I challenge my more progressive colleagues about, ‘How will your dreamed for vision of like, complete justice be accomplished,’ their answers are structural change,” Coons continued. “Get rid of the filibuster, pack the court—these are fairly extreme answers. And I’ll tell you, I think you’re right about that.
Then Coons launches into an answer on the second question, in which he appears to lay at least partial blame for the Senate’s dysfunction on the fact that political power is now more shared among a more diverse group than it was in less fractious times:
I want to believe of our country and ourselves that a more diverse Senate that includes women’s voices, and voices of people of color, and voices of people who were not professionals but, you know, who grew up working class and were the first in their family to go to school and so forth, that we can engage those voices and that they can be part of the debate, and that that doesn’t produce irreconcilable discord.
I think history may judge otherwise, but I appreciate your raising both points.
Following Coons’ answer, Donnelly took it in a different direction. “I think the fact that we are more diverse is one of the strongest things we could have possibly done,” Donnelly remarks. “It is so much more reflective of America, and it makes us such a better body in terms of looking at issues,” before pivoting away to a point about the changes in media since that time.
Responding to Splinter following the publication of this story, Coons communications director Sean Coit insisted Coons’ intent was clear. “Senator Coons is committed to improving diversity in our politics, in Congress, and throughout our country,” Coit told Splinter in a statement. “It’s clear that in this conversation, the Senator was talking about how difficult, but critically important, it has been to increase diversity in Congress, and also how far we still have to go.”
“Our halls of government work best when they’re working for everyone. That’s what I believe and I know Senator Coons believes that, too,” Delaware Democratic Party chair Erik Raser-Schramm told Splinter in a statement. (As was the case with Congress, the 2018 election brought in one of the most diverse classes ever in Coons’ home state legislature.) “Senator Coons’ lamentation is that history may judge that there are too many people currently serving in Congress who are dismissive of new and diverse voices.”
During the conversation, Coons also practically boasted about the fire he’s come under in his own state for being too accommodating to Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and the Senate GOP’s project to remake the federal bench.
“I just got my very first dose of what I think Jeff and Joe got to experience far too often. Dozens of angry folks came to my office to protest me, I think it was two weeks ago, for voting for too many ‘Trump judges,’” Coons said, emphasizing the last two words with air quotes. “It’s not just blue or red jerseys being worn by those of us who are elected...I have attack ads run against me in my home state, I’ve had protesters arrested in my front office, because I voted for judges who were qualified.”
Coons also unfavorably compared progressives in his party to Christine O’Donnell, the former Tea Party candidate whom Coons defeated in 2010 to win the seat formerly occupied by Joe Biden. (Coons has endorsed Biden in the Democratic primary.)
“I’ll remind you how I was elected. A senior, seasoned, competent Republican who’d spent a lot of time working across the aisle in the House was defeated in a tough primary, by someone who was more principled during the Tea Party period,” Coons said. “I’m afraid my party is about to undertake the same kind of purity-driven exercise, whether in the presidential primaries or in the primaries our own incumbents face.”
Coons is up for re-election in 2020. So far, he has no announced challengers.
Update, 5:18 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with comment from Coons’ office and the Delaware Democratic Party.