Coons won handily on Tuesday, but Witzke got record GOP votes. Was Trump's influence underestimated?

Isabel Hughes
Delaware News Journal

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons broke a personal record on Tuesday, receiving the largest percentage of votes since he first ran for Senate in 2010.

That year, he won 57% of the vote. Four years later, he got 56%. On Tuesday, the senator received 59% of the more than 476,000 votes cast across the state.

But Coons' opponent, a Trumpian Republican who emulated the president's inflammatory social media strategy, earned more than 185,000 votes this election – the most any Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Delaware has received since at least 2000.

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And though she only received 38% of the total vote, Lauren Witzke's results were surprising to many in the state, given her numbers were higher than polls projected.

Despite losing the U.S. Senate seat to Democratic incumbent Chris Coons, Republican Lauren Witzke gives a speech to her supporters Tuesday night, telling them that winning over 180,000 votes in that race is still a victory in her eyes.

The 32-year-old's relative success wasn't a one-off.

In a handful of states, polls showed former Vice President Joe Biden more substantially ahead than he ended up being when votes came in. And in Florida, where a Monday survey showed him having a 3-point lead over President Donald Trump, the president emerged victorious.

Tuesday's results have left many across the country wondering how the media, political pundits and polls got it wrong. The outcomes also raise an important question:

Were the president's and Witzke's successes a result of record voter turnout, or do their messages resonate more than experts realize?

Witzke eclipsed 2010 O'Donnell campaign

Prior to Delaware's September primary, Witzke was not the state GOP's favored candidate. Republican Jim DeMartino had the backing of the state party, but lost to Witzke by 14 percentage points.

The scenario was reminiscent of Delaware's 2010 U.S. Senate race, in which former Republican governor Mike Castle was expected to be a shoo-in for the Senate seat, which Biden vacated when he became vice president.

But Christine O'Donnell – a Tea Party candidate who dabbled in witchcraft – upset Castle, shocking the state. Coons beat her handily in the general election.

Witzke, with her extreme "America First" platform and unabashedly anti-immigration rhetoric, makes O'Donnell, who made national headlines with her "I'm not a witch" ad, look tame.

And yet the 32-year-old, who had no prior experience running for office before this election, received a greater percentage of the Republican votes in Kent and Sussex counties than O'Donnell did in 2010. O'Donnell had also run against Biden for U.S. Senate in 2008.

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The same is true of the 2014 Senate race.

On Tuesday, Witzke received more of the Republican vote in Kent and Sussex than GOP candidate Kevin Wade did six years ago, suggesting her message resonates more with Republicans in Delaware's lower two counties than O'Donnell's a decade ago and Wade's in 2014.

"I think there was an underappreciation of the solid Trump support, Republican support, in the state," said Samuel Hoff, a political science and history professor at Delaware State University, in an interview Wednesday.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Ms. Witzke actually won Sussex as a result of that."

But just how well Witzke did in Kent, too, was surprising something the candidate remarked on Tuesday night.

"We showed tonight that we do have a strong base and a strong appetite for America First policies," Witzke said. "Donald Trump is an extraordinary president who put America first, and that resonates with people.

"As you can see tonight, it resonated with over 180,000 Delawareans. And we will continue to push for the movement."

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Delaware pollsters may have underestimated just how much energy is behind the Witzke-Trump message.

University of Delaware poll published in early October showed Coons with a 30-point margin over Witzke — 57% to 27%. And yet on Tuesday, the senator won by 21 points, still crushing Witzke, but by a smaller margin than predicted.

Republican Lauren Witzke lost the Delaware Senate seat to Democrat Chris Coons. Witzke held her election night at Fraizer's restaurant in Dover on Tuesday.

Coons said Tuesday that in the last 10 years, he's seen a shift in the Senate of what kinds of Republicans join the ranks. Congress, he said, has "been pushed farther and farther apart as candidates in both parties who are from the extremes get elected."

"There are places in the country that are likely today to elect folks who have fairly extreme views," he said.

In a solidly blue state like Delaware, it's very difficult for more extreme Republicans to win statewide.

But as Witzke's results show, in the Republican voter base, there's a penchant for her — and the president's — kind of politics.

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"Maybe ... the moderates will get back control of the Republican Party," Hoff said. "But this question of where Witzke's going to take the state Republican Party is just as pertinent now as it was in the aftermath of 2010."

Send story tips or ideas to Isabel Hughes at ihughes@delawareonline.com or 302-324-2785. For all things breaking news, follow her on Twitter at @izzihughes_