You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Manchin chats with Little Miss 4th of July before the start of a parade in Ripley, West Virginia. (Getty Images)

How to Win in Trump Country

For Joe Manchin, it's simple: Keep it local. Focus on health care. And don't run against the president.

Manchin chats with Little Miss 4th of July before the start of a parade in Ripley, West Virginia. (Getty Images)

At an August rally in West Virginia for Patrick Morrisey, the crowd at the Charleston Civic Center was largely there to see Donald Trump. The president had flown in to give Morrisey, the state’s attorney general, a boost in his attempt to unseat Democratic Senator Joe Manchin in the midterms this fall. Morrisey gave Trump a grateful look as he strode on stage, declaring, “We love you, Mr. President!” In the midst of his stump speech, he even coined a Trump-esque epithet for his opponent: “dishonest liberal Joe Manchin.”

Trump played some of his greatest hits (“the people of West Virginia can’t stand winning so much”) to a rapturous audience. Whether he succeeded in generating enthusiasm for Morrisey, a round-shouldered man with glasses who stood a half-head shorter than the president, was another question. One attendee, John Shannon, who wore a Trump 2020 hat and was angling to shake hands with a Fox News personality, told me he needed to “do some more research” before he could say who he’d back in the Senate race.

That Trump is needed in West Virginia to boost his party’s Senate candidate is indicative of the problems Republicans face in 2018, even in so-called Trump Country. Two years ago, Republicans absolutely dominated West Virginia. The Mountain State gave Trump his second-biggest percentage of the vote (67.9 percent) in the country after Wyoming, and his second-biggest margin of victory (41.7 percentage points), also after Wyoming. Republicans that year retained majorities in both chambers of the state legislature and successfully defended all three congressional seats.

Now, however, Manchin has a narrow but tangible lead over Morrisey. In southern West Virginia, Richard Ojeda, an Army veteran who voted for Trump but is running for Congress as a pro-pot, pro-labor Democrat, has made a competitive race out of one of the Trumpiest districts in the country. Teachers in West Virginia won national attention in late winter for a strike that cascaded into similar actions in Kentucky, Oklahoma, and beyond, and their actions have been injecting energy into state legislative races.

It’s tempting to see in these events a blue wave that’s poised to break over the country, including in states that went hard for Trump two years ago. But that’s not what’s happening in West Virginia. If Manchin successfully wins re-election in November, it will be precisely because he prevented his campaign from turning into a referendum on the president.

Consider Manchin’s response to Trump’s rally. Hours before, Manchin’s campaign sent out a message that began this way: “It’s always special when the president of the United States comes to West Virginia.” Manchin then sent another publicity blast expressing his support for the Trump administration’s rewrite of the Clean Power Plan, which rolls back planned restrictions on carbon emissions that would have accelerated the national shift away from coal-fired electricity. Subject line: “Manchin Applauds New Trump Energy Policy, and Help for Coal Miners.”

This is not a Democrat running against the president; this is a Democrat racing to embrace him.

Joe Manchin’s kind is virtually extinct. More than any other U.S. senator, he has successfully carved out a spot in Capitol Hill’s political center, occupying a no man’s land between a Democratic Party tilting left and a Republican Party becoming more Trump-like by the day.

“He’s the party of Joe Manchin,” said Hoppy Kercheval, a radio journalist who’s been covering West Virginia for four decades. “He now runs more as a populist than as a Democrat.”

His brand predates his own career. His uncle, A. James Manchin, served in President John F. Kennedy’s administration before winning three statewide elections as a Democrat. He then worked closely with Republican Arch Moore, a congressman, three-time governor, and the father of Joe Manchin’s fellow U.S. senator from West Virginia, Shelley Moore Capito.

When Manchin ran for governor in 1996, and suffered his only career election loss in a Democratic primary to progressive Charlotte Pritt, he joined a group of Democrats backing her Republican opponent Cecil Underwood, who went on to win the general election. The 1996 election was also the last time West Virginia voted for a Democrat for president. Some blame conservative Democrats like Manchin, who ultimately prevailed in his bid to become governor in 2004, for the party’s woes in the state. “The Democratic Party doesn’t stand for anything that the Democratic Party used to stand for,” Pritt told me. “It’s completely been eviscerated since Joe Manchin took control of the party.”

After Senator Robert Byrd died in 2010, Manchin won a special election to replace him in a year in which Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate. A viral television ad showing Manchin shooting the House’s cap-and-trade carbon emission bill introduced him to the country even as his fellow Appalachian Democrats became an endangered species.

In the Senate, Manchin blazed a center-right path that placed him to the right of all other Senate Democrats and even a couple of Republicans, according to GovTrack’s ideology score. Planned Parenthood gives him a 57 percent rating. In 2012, he received an “A” from the National Rifle Association. Later that year, after the Sandy Hook mass shooting that left 20 children dead, Manchin reconsidered his policy position on guns, co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill to expand background checks that failed. Now the NRA has given Manchin a “D” and is running ads against him in state.

Although Manchin endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, he has been a rare Democratic ally of Trump since his election victory, voting for all but a few of the president’s cabinet nominations and loudly applauding his rollback of environmental protections. However, he stuck with Democrats as they defended Obamacare and tried to scuttle the $1.5 trillion Republican tax package—making him a possibly valuable vote on key issues if Democrats manage to take back control of the government in 2020.

Manchin’s relative independence, frequent support for conservative policies, and outspoken devotion to West Virginia’s fossil fuel industries enabled him to survive the Obama years, when Republicans used “War on Coal” messaging to wipe out Democrats in rural areas.

“Joe Manchin’s six-year term coincides with catastrophe down the ballot for the Democrats,” said Chris Regan, a prominent voice among West Virginia progressives. He cited Governor Jim Justice’s party flip in 2017, which gave the GOP control of the governor’s mansion and codified West Virginia’s transition from a blue state to a deep-red one. Regan ticked off the other losses: “They lost the board of public works, four of the five seats. They lost the state House of Delegates. They lost the state Senate. They lost two out of three congressional seats. It’s extraordinary how the state has changed during his six years.”

These dynamics have resulted in an atypical Senate race, with Morrisey, the Republican, hoping to turn it into a referendum on the nationally unpopular Trump and Manchin, the Democrat, trying to keep Trump out of it.

Manchin may have lucked out in his opponent. In the Republican primary, Morrisey faced off against former Democrat Evan Jenkins and former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who had just come off a one-year prison sentence for conspiring to skirt mine safety rules at Upper Big Branch, where a 2010 explosion killed 29 miners. Blankenship drained enough ballots from Jenkins in southern West Virginia to hand Morrisey the win.

Morrisey is the perfect foil for Manchin, who can attack his challenger in ways that highlight his own strengths and diminish his own weaknesses by comparison. Manchin’s a West Virginia native who has spent his whole life in-state. Morrisey grew up in New Jersey and unsuccessfully ran for Congress there before moving to West Virginia.

Manchin’s daughter is the CEO for Mylan, the second-largest generic pharmaceutical manufacturer, which has been sued for overpricing its EpiPen line for emergency treatment of anaphylaxis. But Morrisey himself worked as a pharmaceutical lobbyist whose clients included McKesson, a drug wholesaler that contributed to the opioid epidemic by flooding West Virginia with 100 million pain pills over five years. Morrisey’s wife Denise is also a lobbyist, who has argued against opioid restrictions for the pharmaceutical giant Cardinal Health.

Health care has become one of the few nationalized focal points in the race. But it’s not one that favors Morrisey. Barack Obama is still unpopular in West Virginia, but key elements of his signature Affordable Care Act—especially coverage for pre-existing conditions and the Medicaid expansion—are popular among a majority of state residents. So while West Virginians have cheered Morrisey’s efforts to fight Obama’s Clean Power Plan in court, they’re skeptical of his legal attempt to overturn Obamacare. In September, Manchin reprised his cap-and-trade stunt with a viral ad that featured him firing a bullet into Morrisey’s lawsuit.  

“The Manchin campaign is going to run a straightforward, health care-and-corruption kind of campaign,” said Scott Crichlow, associate professor of political science at West Virginia University.

The hard-fought primary drained Morrisey’s campaign funds, leaving him with less than $900,000, compared to Manchin’s $6.3 million. Over the summer, Democrats and their allies hit Morrisey with ads about his lobbyist past and his carpetbagging, while Republican spots dared Manchin to vote against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and tried to tie him to national Democrats.

Meanwhile, Manchin himself ran low to the ground, restricting himself to spot appearances at tailgates, festivals, and meetings of civic groups, and all but ghosting the national media, which has become one of Trump’s primary enemies. As campaign spokesman Grant Herring told me, “We are keeping a laser-like focus on local media at this point.”

The strategy, so far, seems to have worked, allowing Morrisey’s drawbacks to dominate the story of the race. When I had visited Ojeda, the Democrat running in the 3rd District, last year, he was wasn’t happy with the senator. “What’s he done for West Virginia that’s made him so awesome?” Ojeda asked as we drove around Logan that fall day.

But then Ojeda won the Democratic nomination and went on to become one of the heroes of the West Virginia teacher’s strike. When I spoke to him in August of this year, Ojeda offered his ticket-mate praise for fighting for coal miner pensions, but grew more animated when Morrisey the “carpet-bagger” came up. “Patrick Morrisey means nothing to me,” Ojeda spat. “He is a bootlicker. If shoe polish was poison, he’d be dead. Make sure you write that!”

The carpet-bagger accusation came up frequently in interviews with people across the state. “He doesn’t know people,” said a West Virginia Republican who did not want to be named. “It’s not that he’s from New Jersey, it’s that he’s not from here.”

In February, the marble halls of the state capitol in Charleston rang with the sound of thousands of teachers singing “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” In mid-August, it was quiet. The teachers who had packed the halls a few months ago had gone back home, with many getting involved in state legislative races.

Those state races are also a part of Manchin’s Senate race. As West Virginia attorney general, Morrisey threatened an injunction against the striking teachers and school personnel. He didn’t follow through, but his words have not been forgotten. The American Federation of Teachers in West Virginia has endorsed Manchin, as has the WV Education Association and WV School Service Personnel Association.

“While I do not always agree with Joe, I have met him on a few occasions and it seems as though he puts thought into the decisions he makes in representing us,” said Joshua Gary, president of the AFT’s Marshall County chapter. “Attorney General Morrisey was reportedly looking to file injunctions against us during the strike, so right there he lost my vote.”

Carrena Rouse, president of the AFT’s Boone County chapter, grew up as the daughter of parents who were involved in the Democratic Party machine of the 1960s. She remembers coal company representatives threatening her mother’s job, which led Rouse to leave the Democrats and register as a Republican. Several years ago she switched back again. Manchin’s positions appeal to Rouse, who believes in economic and social justice but also wants the right to own a gun and is against late-term abortion.

“I’m not a fan of the good ole boy ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,’” Rouse said, “but that’s what’s taking place. I’d rather have Joe than someone who’s going to sell me out because they have a political lobbyist background. I understand where Joe Manchin comes from. I really believe he’s trying to find a way to put West Virginia first.”

More than coal or cultural issues, what unites West Virginia voters is the desire for someone who will fight for them. The Mountain State frequently finds itself near the bottom of state-by-state rankings, whether in median household income (48th), teacher pay (47th), or health care rankings (44th). West Virginia has a long history of exploitation by outside interests, with revenue from timber, coal, and most recently natural gas flowing out to companies and individuals in other states. Its voters want someone who will look out for them.

That’s what Trump did in 2016, promising to bring back coal, while Hillary Clinton’s out-of-context remark about putting coal miners out of work sealed her doom. Voters in West Virginia do not appear unduly concerned by the hollowness of Trump’s promises. His continued attention has mattered more, it seems, than his follow-through (or lack thereof). His repeated appearances in the state have won him support that’s persisted throughout his troubled presidency.

Manchin’s campaign leans heavily on his loyalty to West Virginia. In August, he dropped an ad in which he appears in a town with dozens of state residents. So the GOP’s best shot is to nationalize the race and paint Manchin as a liberal Democrat who hates Trump. “Manchin is a Democrat running who over time has become more and more part of the liberal Washington Democratic establishment,” said former West Virginia GOP chairman Conrad Lucas. “The state has moved away from him as he’s moved away from the state.”

Or as Hoppy Kercheval put it, “When you hear Morrisey, he’s going to talk about Joe Manchin, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and maybe Barack Obama. He’s going to try to put them all in the same sentence.”

But Obama is not in the White House. And Morrisey is still facing attacks from Blankenship, his primary opponent, who has blasted Morrisey for being “a guy who could not find many of the counties you fellas live in without a GPS.”

The lessons that Democrats might draw from Manchin are this: Represent your constituents, even if it means sometimes breaking with party leadership. Keep the focus local. Talk about health care. And maybe most importantly, draw the right opponent.