As West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin runs for reelection for his second full term, he’s facing a growing liability: The “D” next to his name.
A well-known Democrat in a state that’s shifted to the right, Manchin is in a fight for his political life as he tries to survive in the era of President Trump.
Republicans view his seat as a prime pick-up opportunity as they try to expand their fragile Senate majority. Meanwhile, Manchin has drawn both progressive ire and a long-shot primary challenger.
“I really think that West Virginia is really the last Southern state to turn red,” said Patrick Hickey, a political science professor at West Virginia University. “[But] I think that Manchin is really good at retail politics. … He’s tried really hard to establish himself as someone who’s an independent.”
Manchin is trying to walk an increasingly narrow path that has him in the center of Washington’s biggest fights and drawing fire from both sides.
It’s not unfamiliar territory for a senator who is consistently ranked as one of the upper chamber’s most conservative Democrats. Manchin has built a brand, and won respect on both sides of the aisle, as someone who is willing to buck his own party.
“Joe Manchin has been around for a long time and he’s been successful for a long time and he’s been willing to spend capital on things he believes in,” said Mike Plante, a longtime Democratic strategist based in West Virginia.
Hickey says it’s an “open question” whether the brand Manchin built over decades as a West Virginia Democrat would be enough to squelch GOP momentum in the state and secure another six years in the Senate.
“It’s a very tough balance beam to be on,” he said.
The political shift in West Virginia over the past decade poses hurdles for any Democrat trying to win a statewide office.
Trump won the state by more than 40 percentage points last year. And though Gov. Jim Justice ran and won as a Democrat in the same year, his recent switch back to the Republican Party leaves Manchin as one of West Virginia’s last Democrats holding statewide office
Political handicappers say Manchin will have a tough race, no matter who emerges from what’s expected to be a nasty GOP primary.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved the race late last week from “likely D” to “toss up,” noting that either Attorney General Patrick Morrisey or Rep. Evan Jenkins (W.Va.) will give Manchin a competitive general election.
And though parties with control of both Congress and the White House historically lose seats during a midterm, Trump remains popular in West Virginia, according to a Gallup Poll released last month.
Strategists says it’s also unlikely that Manchin would switch parties to bolster his reelection chances or jump ship for a Cabinet post in the Trump administration — a move that would allow Justice to appoint a Republican replacement.
“Part of that Democratic Party he grew up in, and his uncle was a part of, and his family was part of, is so entangled in who he is and how he sees himself,” Plante said.
Manchin’s uncle, Antonio James Manchin, was a colorful Democrat who held state office and worked with the Kennedy administration. Another was one of 78 men killed in a 1968 mining explosion.
“He’s a Democrat, period,” said Jim Manley, a long-time aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid says he’s cancer free White House gets jolt from strong jobs report Murkowski, Mattis criticism ratchets up pressure on GOP over Trump MORE (D-Nev.).
But Manchin has long been at the center of party-switching speculation.
He quickly, and repeatedly, tried to quash reports that he could leave the party if the Senate split 50-50. He told The Associated Press on the night of the 2016 presidential election that “I’m a born-in-the-wool West Virginia Democrat. I don’t know where they’re getting that crap from.”
More recently, after Justice switched parties, Manchin reiterated that he is a “West Virginia Democrat.” Manchin also shot down rumors that he could be Trump’s Energy secretary, saying this week that “right now, the best I can continue to serve the people of West Virginia is as United States senator.”
Hickey doesn’t think Manchin will switch parties. But if he does, according to Hickey, he’d have trouble winning the GOP primary.
GOP control of the White House could pay dividends for Manchin, allowing him to position himself as a bridge builder between the two parties and raise his profile ahead of a tough midterm fight.
“Look, this is a guy who was initially considered as Trump’s Energy secretary and then was subject of lots of talk about that possibility again. … Obviously he’s got some cross appeal to the party in power,” Plante said.
Hickey added Manchin’s relationship with Trump helps feed his brand as “someone who’s above partisanship.”
“He talks about having cellphone conversations with the president … and he’s said positive things about President Trump,” he said.
But Manchin’s position as a potential swing vote on looming policy fights has earned him fire from both sides.
Though Manchin stuck with his conference against the deeply unpopular GOP effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare, he’s also convened bipartisan groups of senators to try come up with a deal.
He’s also sending early signals he is open to working with Republicans on tax reform, a key GOP agenda item.
When a majority of the Democratic conference sent a letter to Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R-Ky.) laying out their priorities on the looming fight, Manchin joined with other red-state Democrats and kept his name off the letter.
Manley said that, while Trump’s low poll numbers give senators up for reelection the “flexibility” they need heading into the midterm elections, it was a “smart play” to position themselves as still open to working with Trump and Republicans.
“If anyone was going to try to cut deals with Senate Republicans and this president it would be Joe Manchin,” he said. “I don’t believe that any of these guys are feeling the pressure in their home states.”
A spokesman for the senator added that Manchin “believes the best way to address tax reform is in a bipartisan manner” and that he has a “good relationship” with McConnell.
But any move to work with Republicans on tax reform, which is expected to only need a simple majority to pass the Senate, would likely inflame progressives. Outside groups aiming to keep Manchin on the party line are already laying down goalposts
“If he becomes a swing vote on tax reform, or other things, that could lose him some of that goodwill,” Hickey said.
Manchin has publicly downplayed the chance that any attempt to pressure him because he is up for reelection will work.
“I don’t give a shit, you understand? I just don’t give a shit,” Manchin told the Charleston Gazette-Mail earlier this month. “If they think because I’m up for election, that I can be wrangled into voting for shit that I don’t like and can’t explain, they’re all crazy.”
The fight for Manchin’s political future comes as Democrats feud over the future of the party and how much effort they should spend in trying to win back rural voters.
Manley said that any progressive groups pushing candidate litmus tests “need to get their head examined.”
Manchin has acknowledged that progressives aren’t going to be happy with him all the time and reportedly challenged a group to primary him.
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At the same time, he’s at times sided with Republicans, including voting for more Cabinet picks than anyone else in the Democratic conference, and helping overturn some Obama-era rules.
“A lot of people have underestimated Joe Manchin and came up short on Election Day,” Plante said. “You’d say obviously that it’s a tough fight, but I think that Joe Manchin represents the kind of Democrat and the kind of politician that can win.”