Chris Coons brought only his nearest and dearest to the stage at the Doubletree Hotel in Wilmington Tuesday night after being declared Delaware’s new senator. The union members and other party foot soldiers who had worked for weeks to put him there, talking at doorstops, dropping leaflets, making calls and standing in a biting cold on Election Day, said they understood. This was his moment, no need to invite snarls about "special interests"; it was a nice gesture that earlier he had even considered having them on the stage, an autoworker who lost his job two years ago told me. But in the next day’s papers the victory image—a polished political family with three beautifully scrubbed children, their futures secured by Gore-Tex—willy-nilly struck the note that Christine O’Donnell had amplified to make this election season in Delaware the weird opera that it was.
O’Donnell, as it turns out, never was a contender. She lost the race with Coons pretty much as she had started it, seventeen points behind. She spent a great swathe of the race bemoaning the media’s unfair treatment, but got more free, respectful press than any longshot candidate in memory, and more national press than any candidate running this year. Calling herself a "citizen politician," an outsider, an ordinary person versus the well-heeled, well-connected Coons, her campaign operated like the closed circle around a diva. It raised $4.9 million, compared with Coons’s $3.2 million, a difference made manifest in ominous commercials that crowded the airwaves, and in mailings that, according to one politically savvy two-party couple from suburban Wilmington, outnumbered those of Coons by at least six to one. At rallies she sang the interests of the rich, extolling the power of unshackled markets, starved government and the specter of the "death tax" in a register that thrilled even audiences with barely two nickels to rub together. In person she emanated warmth—"America’s sweetheart," men called her—even as her campaign materials came with claws. And up until the end, she spoke of secret polls and a subterranean "power of the people" that would shock all of Delaware in November as it had the state’s Republican establishment a couple of months before.
She lost for the same reason that she got so much attention. "I’m not a witch.… I’m you," she said flirtatiously in her first commercial. The "witch" part took off in the same media-churn machine that made her a star, but that’s not what did her in. And it’s not credible that, as she later claimed, the ad went out by mistake, given that its TV broadcast was preceded by a most deliberate and enthusiastic sneak preview via internet from Team Christine to supporters. The real mistake was the second part of the formulation.
"I’m you" spoke to her most passionate fans, but in the absence of any other meaningful message, "I’m you" also motivated others whose reality she seemed unable to fathom. On Election Day at duPont Middle School in central Wilmington, voters streamed in at a rate higher than the state turnout of 48 percent. Black people, young people, the old with canes or walkers, a lot of women while I was there. Outside the school were four AFSCME members and half a dozen lifelong friends of Delaware State Representative Dennis P. Williams, who was running unopposed but working the polls nonetheless. A fellow who has a small moving business and some of his workers wore T-shirts thanking people for voting Democratic and softly told arriving voters, "Yes we can." Against this vivid, bantering scene was a man who looked as if he had spent many hard nights in the cold with a bottle of Thunderbird, slumped alone and wearing an O’Donnell T-shirt. It was a job, $10 an hour; voters recognized that. But the national faction that embraced O’Donnell had made Obama a cartoon from jump, and now her campaign had hired the most down-and-out black people to work central city polling places to say what—"I’m you"? It was an insult.