In Delaware, GOP should target Dems, not O'Donnell

Imagine for a moment that Republicans were not consumed with the various faults of the party's newly chosen Delaware Senate candidate, Christine O'Donnell. What would GOP operatives, both in Delaware and in Washington, be doing right now? They'd be attacking the record of O'Donnell's Democratic opponent, Chris Coons. As it turns out, there's plenty to attack, if Republicans ever get around to it.

GOP officials, both local and national, have long been preparing for a run against Coons. Until very recently they thought their candidate would be Mike Castle. But in any event, they knew their opponent, and the same issues that would have been effective for Castle against Coons could be effective for O'Donnell.

Coons, 47, is the top executive of New Castle County, home to a majority of Delaware's population. From a Republican perspective, there's one really important thing to know about his time in office: In 2004, when Coons first ran for the job, he promised not to raise taxes. Since then he has raised taxes not once, not twice, but three times.

Coons inherited a surplus. Celebrating victory on election night in 2004, he said his “top priority would be to continue balancing the budget without increasing property taxes,” according to an account in the local News Journal. Yet in 2006, he pushed through a 5 percent increase in property taxes. In 2007, he raised property taxes 17.5 percent. In 2009, he raised them another 25 percent.

Coons wanted to raise other taxes, too. He proposed a hotel tax, a tax on paramedic services, even a tax on people who call 911 from cell phones.

Coons says the increases were necessary because New Castle County, despite its surplus, was saddled with extravagant spending obligations made by his predecessor. “Chris made really tough decisions, and after bringing folks together was able to say that we have to have some level of shared sacrifice if we want to get the county back on track,” says Coons spokesman Daniel McElhatton. “He was able to restore New Castle County to fiscal responsibility.”

Well, not exactly. In January 2009, Coons warned the county might be headed for bankruptcy.

A few months ago, preparing for the expected race against Castle, Coons sought to pre-empt the tax issue with a frank acknowledgement. “Chris Coons raised your taxes,” he said in an interview with Politico. “Absolutely. Guilty as charged, your honor.” Coons argued that he had also cut spending by historic amounts to keep the county solvent.

Now, on his campaign Web site, Coons expresses deep concern about the federal government's “runaway debt.” A number of his proposals to cut the deficit involve collecting more taxes.

Add to that the likelihood that Coons will be a strong ally of the Democratic leadership in new spending proposals. He has supported all the big ones — stimulus, bailouts, Obamacare — and on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Coons is his favorite Senate candidate. “He's my pet,” Reid told the Hill newspaper. (A chagrined McElhatton was reduced to protesting that “Chris is not anyone's pet.”)

Put it all together, and could central casting have come up with a better Democrat for a Republican to run against? “We believe that Chris Coons, with his record of raising taxes, has shown throughout his career that he would rather take orders and directives from Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid than do what is right for Delaware and the country,” says state GOP spokesman Thomas Doheny.

Some Republicans argue that O'Donnell, given her own tax lien from 2005, can't make that argument. Maybe not. But it's just as likely she will receive some sympathy for her problems with the IRS — she says she did nothing wrong — and besides, Delaware voters might well care more about their own taxes than Christine O'Donnell's.

At the moment, though, top Republicans are still beside themselves over O'Donnell's primary win. On Thursday, Delaware state GOP chairman Tom Ross, an O'Donnell foe, pledged support for “our candidates” but couldn't bring himself to mention O'Donnell's name. National party officials are scrambling to back down from their initial snub of her. Meanwhile, a new Rasmussen poll shows O'Donnell 11 points behind Coons — a significant margin, but not insurmountable.

Can party officials put aside their unhappiness and campaign hard for their elected nominee? Even in Delaware, there has probably never been a better year for a flawed candidate on the right side of the issues. Why not try to win?

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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