Liberals, still flush from defeating Trump and taking control of both houses of Congress, are adjusting to the grim reality that the fate of their bold legislative agenda lies with one of Washington’s most conservative Democrats: a pro-coal, anti-choice, Trump-friendly fiscal hawk who voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. As soon as Democrats took control of the upper chamber, Twitter began buzzing with jokes about the money that would flow into West Virginia as Democrats wooed Joe Manchin: Some posted pictures of futuristic cityscapes, others photos of lavish mountaintop research facilities, with the caption, “West Virginia after 2 years of Joe Manchin getting whatever he wants.”
Those jokes may have a grain of truth. Manchin, a former governor who approaches his job in fairly transactional terms, has never been above bringing home the bacon. As his predecessor, the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, used to say, “One man’s pork is another man’s job.” With an economy in deep crisis, the people of West Virginia need help. If Joe Manchin doesn’t deliver, his constituents will know exactly who to blame.
Manchin’s Senate career began in 2010 with a bang. His race should have been a cakewalk. A popular governor and the son of a respected political family with deep roots in the Mountain State, he’d won endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce, the NRA, the mine workers, and their bosses. And his opponent, John Raese, was a perennial GOP also-ran, a steel and limestone magnate whom Manchin had credibly accused of trying to “buy” the election—with $500,000 of his own money.
By September, Raese had pulled ahead. Manchin was still popular, but Barack Obama was not. Smelling blood, Republicans cut an attack ad featuring West Virginians in plaid and frayed baseball caps sitting at a diner counter, grousing that “Washington Joe” had supported everything the president had put before Congress, from the economic stimulus to the Affordable Care Act. The hit landed. But when a copy of the casting call for the ad—which was, as it turned out, filmed in Philadelphia with professional actors—leaked to Politico, Manchin was able to turn it against Raese. The strategists behind the ad had called for a “‘Hicky’ Blue Collar look … think coal miner/trucker.” Suggestions included “Dickie’s type” jackets and John Deere hats, “(not brand new, preferably beat up).” Manchin used the snafu to further tar his wealthy opponent—who had supported NAFTA and opposed the minimum wage—as a fake friend of the workingman. “Coal miners and truckers … are two of the most honorable professions we have,” Manchin told ABC News at the time. “To cast [them] in such a disparaging light is just awful.”
Manchin appeared in his own TV spot: Dressed for a hunt, he loads bullets into a bolt-action rifle, before firing it into a copy of the Obama-backed cap-and-trade bill; he also promises to “repeal the bad parts of Obamacare.” He won the election and settled on a brand for navigating Washington: He’d be a West Virginian first, a Democrat second. Over the years, Manchin made sure to complain about Capitol Hill. (“Washington sucks” is practically his catchphrase.) In 2012, he opposed Obama’s agenda more than any other Democratic senator, and declined to endorse him. Later, he voted with Trump roughly half the time.
Manchin intends to take the same approach in the Biden era: shooting straight down the middle. “The intense tribalism we are seeing across our nation is dangerous and untenable,” Manchin told TNR. “Without compromise, our democracy will not survive.” He considers himself a pragmatist, seeking “bipartisan paths forward to make Congress more functional.” But in an era of polarization and gridlock, bipartisanship can be its own kind of utopian thinking.
Putting “West Virginia first,” as Manchin promises to do, may require something else. If seeking compromise with the GOP sabotages the aid his constituents need, he may pay a price for his idealism.
The conventional wisdom is that Manchin, now the only West Virginia Democrat left in federal or statewide office, has kept his footing as his state veered right because he’s a moderate. But the real story is far more complicated. Many voters abandoned the Democratic Party for a simple reason. “Today, most West Virginians are worse off than their parents were, and that mostly happened under decades of corporate Democratic control and leadership,” said Stephen Smith, co-chair of West Virginia Can’t Wait, a rural populist group.
Thousands of voters in the state have left the Democratic Party since the 1990s, when the party embraced corporate centrism and moved away from its labor roots; the process reached its zenith in the Obama years, when coal companies and the GOP blamed Democrats for coal’s decline. Today, most liberal strategists consider the state all but lost. But, crucially, more of those voters became independents than Republicans, united in their hatred of the establishment, elites in Washington, and both political parties.
Manchin, for all he has done to support the big banks and the business interests in the state, has been able to tap into that sentiment. He maintains his power, Smith insists, not because of his conservative voting record, but in spite of it. He is a skilled retail politician, whose office provides excellent constituent services to a needy state. “He shows up,” Smith said. “He neutralizes his opponents because he’s accessible. He listens. The problem is, he doesn’t budge on the issues that would actually get our state out of the mess we’re in.”
In 2018, Manchin took aim at another symbolic stack of papers: state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s lawsuit to dismantle Obamacare. This time, he used a shotgun. “I haven’t changed,” Manchin asserted to the camera. “I might be a few years older, but I’ll still take on anyone that messes with West Virginia.” Then he blew a hole through a legal brief.
But hadn’t he changed? After the ACA became popular in West Virginia, as federal money for Medicaid poured into the state, Manchin became a staunch defender of the law. When Republicans sought to repeal it in 2017, he warned that Trump voters in his state would “know” Republicans took their health coverage “away from them.”
Like other Democrats, Manchin made health care a centerpiece of his 2018 run. He couldn’t run against Trump—who held a 60 percent approval rating in West Virginia—but he could run for a program that has benefited West Virginia as much as any state. And it worked. Backing big federal programs, even those that rankle Republicans, can pay political dividends—as long as people feel the difference in their lives.
In that sense, Manchin’s trajectory points to a Democratic future in West Virginia. It may not run straight down the middle, between two partisan poles, but along the bottom, among those who haven’t benefited from the leadership at the top—blue or red. Perhaps King Joe is too comfortable, or too stubborn, to learn that lesson. If he is, there are those eager to bring him low.
When Manchin balked at $2,000 checks in early January, he was swiftly hit with a brutal radio ad at home. “I guess Joe just don’t know what it’s been like to live through the pandemic,” said the ad, paid for by the No Excuses PAC, the brainchild of former Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Justice Democrats staffers. “We should call his office and let him know.” A few days later, Manchin changed his tune.