The Biden whisperer in the SenateJune 23, 2020
If Joe Biden wins in November, much of his agenda will hinge on a potentially surprising power-player: Chris Coons.
Facing a pandemic, struggling economy and perhaps myriad other crises, the gridlock that has long gripped the Senate will instantly threaten Biden’s presidency — and Coons is uniquely positioned to step in.
The Delaware Democrat maintains almost familial ties with Biden, while also enjoying close relationships with GOP senators, with whom he’s starting to have conversations about what the Senate could look like if Biden is elected president.
With Democrats’ odds growing to win the White House and potentially the Senate, lawmakers are beginning to envision life under a Biden administration. And Coons would play a critical role in shepherding the former vice president’s legislative priorities.
“We’re going to have a real challenge being able to legislate,” Coons warned in an hourlong interview. “If we’re going to legislate durable solutions … we have to be having conversations now about what’s the path forward towards a healthier, more functional Senate.”
Coons is known for embracing the centrist, consensus-oriented politics that animate Biden, whose Senate seat he now holds. He’s hopeful that Republicans may be more willing to work with Biden than they did with President Barack Obama. But he also has no illusions about the state of the polarized Senate. And he insists Biden “is not naive.”
Unlike some of his colleagues on the left, Coons doesn’t advocate getting rid of the legislative filibuster. He once even led a letter against scrapping it. But he’s also not ruling it out.
“I will not stand idly by for four years and watch the Biden administration’s initiatives blocked at every turn,” Coons said. “I am gonna try really hard to find a path forward that doesn’t require removing what’s left of the structural guardrails, but if there’s a Biden administration, it will be inheriting a mess, at home and abroad. It requires urgent and effective action.”
It’s an acknowledgment of how partisan the Senate has become and signals that aggressive moves may be in store for Capitol Hill if Democrats take back the Senate and the White House and face blanket GOP resistance led by new Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Coons’ bond with Biden also raises the prospect that he could find himself with a senior post in the new administration. Coons, who is up for reelection this year, said he wouldn’t speculate on whether he’d leave the Senate and is focused on his assignments on the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees. But his colleagues recognize the possibility of a Cabinet position. Coons’ relationships across the aisle would also make him an easily confirmable choice if Republicans hold on to the Senate majority.
“I prefer to think of him as potential secretary of State,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee member. “I have frankly teased him about it a little bit.”
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a close Biden ally, added, “If Vice President Biden were to win, I think Chris could serve in a number of high-ranking, significant positions.”
Still, Coons’ relationships in the Senate would provide a unique opportunity to help deliver on Biden’s priorities, particularly if Chuck Schumer and the Democrats don’t finish off the filibuster and they need to win GOP votes to reach a 60-vote threshold on legislation.
“I think he can be pretty influential,” said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), another Biden supporter. “Chris has that way to be very influential and will help navigate … with members of Congress.”
During his time in the Senate, Coons has often been a bipartisan deal-maker. He played a key role in reaching an agreement with then-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to push the FBI to probe further into sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh during his contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
Once when a GOP colleague was absent from a Foreign Relations Committee hearing, he changed his vote from “no” to “present” to speed up approval of Mike Pompeo’s secretary of State nomination — a show of courtesy that prompted then-Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to tear up.
Coons has waited a long time to see Biden become president.
He first met Biden in 1986, when he was right out of college, at an event at George Washington University. Coons saw Biden speak in Iowa and New Hampshire during his first presidential run in 1988, volunteered in Iowa on Biden’s 2008 White House bid, and held off on endorsing Hillary Clinton in 2016 until it was clear Biden wouldn’t run.
Coons also had a close relationship with Beau Biden, Joe Biden’s son, with whom he began a Young Democrats organization together.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) recalled that when Beau died in 2015 from brain cancer and she wanted to reach out to Biden, Coons was the person she turned to.
“We’ve had conversations about Joe Biden, but the most extensive were when his son died and I wanted to call him and express my condolences and it was Sen. Coons who got me the phone number that I needed to do so,” Collins said.
“He speaks for Joe Biden differently, because he’s not talking about his policy issues,” added Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “He’s talking about him as a person and that’s a different kind of a relationship.”
Coons said his talks with GOP senators about working together in a post-Trump era have been mostly preliminary. But Republicans know if they need to get in touch with Biden or his team, Coons is the right conduit.
Coons’ background on Zoom calls is a photo of him campaigning for Biden in New Hampshire with other Delawareans. He has Biden signs in his home from his time on the road, one from Nevada and another from Iowa. And he wears different Biden T-shirts to work out in.
He talks to the Biden campaign nearly every day, providing advice on a range of topics, including foreign policy. He’s held a number of faith calls for the “Believers for Biden” initiative as well as hosted several fundraisers, including one last week with former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and John Kerry. And he’s promoted Biden in more than 100 media interviews in the past year, according to his staff.
“I couldn’t be prouder to have him serve in the seat I once occupied,” Biden said in a statement. “He has also been an invaluable champion and advocate for our campaign on Capitol Hill and elsewhere since the day we launched. I am grateful for his friendship and counsel, and will continue to count on his leadership for many years to come.”
In the early days of the campaign, Coons spent hours on the phone and in person reaching out to local and state representatives in early primary states asking for their support, a sometimes exhausting task.
“I had a two-hour dinner with a state senator from New Hampshire,” Coons recalled. “We’re an hour and 45 minutes into it. He goes, ‘You know, I had dinner at this exact restaurant with Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and I really appreciate this dinner.’ … I’m like, you’re not ready to endorse after two hours? Oh my god.”
Coons also sought to secure early endorsements from Senate colleagues last year for Biden, but many were hesitant given seven of their colleagues were also running for president. As a result, Coons said he “did a lot of listening.”
Now that Biden has wrapped up the nomination, Coons is having conversations with Senate Democrats about how to help Biden win the general election, particularly in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
“Sen. Coons has talked to me many times about Vice President Biden,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “We’ve talked about Michigan. I think he probably talked to everyone about their circumstances in their states.”
He’s also reached out to former GOP lawmakers about supporting Biden. Coons is skeptical that any GOP senators will endorse Biden publicly, but said he could “absolutely, in a few cases” see some backing Biden in the privacy of their voting booth.
Months ago, when Biden’s campaign looked like it might be over after a string of early losses, Coons said he kept recalling a conversation he had with a state representative from South Carolina, while trying to secure yet another Biden endorsement.
“She said, ‘Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter what anyone says to me about him. Doesn’t matter. I know him, and he knows me,’” Coons said. “I held on to that like … a life raft.”