You Want to Understand Joe Manchin? You Have to Understand West Virginia Politics First.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., talks on his phone before Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, speaks during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Wednesday, June 9, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: Al Drago/Pool via AP
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., talks on his phone before Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, speaks during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Wednesday, June 9, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: Al Drago/Pool via AP

For the past several months, Sen. Joe Manchin has been the subject of national and international headlines alike. With the tight Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, the moderate Democrat from West Virginia, first elected in 2010, has had a spotlight on his ability to make or break legislation being presented by the president’s party.

That spotlight has only become brighter in the past two weeks as the Senate has considered federal voting legislation in the wake of state legislatures’ attempts to restrict voting rights in many places across the country and talk of making changes to the filibuster – a legislative process that allows Senators to debate, delay or even prevent a vote – in order to make it easier for Democrats to push their policy agenda through. Every morning, I’ve turned on NPR’s Morning Edition to hear the hosts utter that name – “Joe Manchin” – and attempt to suss out his motivations, to help their national audience understand him. 

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a crucial 50th vote for Democrats on President Joe Biden's proposals, walks with reporters as senators go to the chamber for votes ahead of the approaching Memorial Day recess, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, May 27, 2021. Senate Republicans are ready to deploy the filibuster to block a commission on the Jan. 6 insurrection, shattering chances for a bipartisan probe of the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol and reviving pressure to do away with the procedural tactic that critics say has lost its purpose. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a crucial 50th vote for Democrats on President Joe Biden’s proposals, walks with reporters as senators go to the chamber for votes ahead of the approaching Memorial Day recess, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, May 27, 2021. Senate Republicans are ready to deploy the filibuster to block a commission on the Jan. 6 insurrection, shattering chances for a bipartisan probe of the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol and reviving pressure to do away with the procedural tactic that critics say has lost its purpose. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

As someone who once led the coverage of West Virginia politics for a statewide media outlet, it can be a little surreal when these blips of interest in our state and its politicians pop up. We’re not an electoral college heavy hitter by any means, so coverage of our politics is sparse. And these are people I closely covered for years, who knew me by name, who called my personal cell from theirs to tell me they’d miss my work when I decided to move on from that job. 

What isn’t surreal, though, and instead frustrating, is to listen as national news hosts and commentators discuss these people, their politics and their motivations as if they understand them, as if they get West Virginia politics. I so respect you, Rachel Martin, and all of your colleagues, but here’s what you – and the rest of the country – don’t get about the senior senator from West Virginia.

A West Virginia Democrat: A History Lesson

Ask any political reporter in West Virginia why Joe Manchin seems to find himself at the center of negotiations in Washington time and time again, and they’ll likely tell you the same thing: A West Virginia Democrat is not the same as a Democrat. To understand Manchin, you must understand what a Democrat has historically been in his home state. 

First, some election history. It may come as a shock to folks who have only recently (like in the past dozen or so years) started paying attention to politics, but despite the intense redness we’re currently experiencing, West Virginia has not traditionally been a red state – not on the national, state, or local level.

It is true that since 2000, West Virginia has consistently been won by the Republican candidate for president. But between 1932 (when FDR won his first term in the office) and 2000, only three presidential elections here were won by a Republican: Eisenhower in ’56, Nixon in ’72 and Regan in ’84. Otherwise, this state went blue for nearly 68 years. That’s not nothing. 

In the governor’s office, the state experienced a similar trend. To compare apples to apples, from 1932 to 2000, West Virginia elected Republican governors five times, but those five terms were served by only two individuals, Cecil Underwood for a term in ’57 and then again in ’97 and Arch Moore – the father of Joe Manchin’s Senate colleague, Shelley Moore Capito – for two terms in 1969 and again for a term in ’85.

Then there’s the West Virginia Legislature. When I started covering the legislative body in 2012, Democrats didn’t just kind of have a majority in both chambers, they had a foothold. The party held 28 of the 34 seats in the state Senate and 65 of 100 in the House. Honestly, it made for a pretty boring couple of legislative sessions for a new political reporter. But everything changed in the 2014 midterms

In what was an unexpected outcome for this native West Virginian, Republicans took control of the state Legislature for the first time in 83 years. Eight decades. They won the House of Delegates outright and with an evenly split Senate on election night, the GOP was able to take hold of the second chamber when a Democratic senator switched parties the next day. 

At the national level in 2014, Republicans also took over the state’s three seats in Congress for the first time since 1921 – 93 years. It was a red wave. One that I can promise you Joe Manchin wasn’t ready for. 

That’s because for literal decades (as noted above) West Virginia Democrats were able to maintain their almost universal control of state politics by casting the widest net possible. Everybody had a place under the party’s tent, even people who held beliefs in opposition to the national party, like folks who were anti-abortion or against gay marriage. A West Virginia Democrat was basically just a West Virginian, someone who leans a little fiscally and socially conservative, but rallies around our strong labor history to support blue-collar workers and unions. 

As I covered elections in 2012 and 2014 in the state, voters told me things like, “In West Virginia, we vote Democrat because there aren’t any other options,” or, “My grandfather voted Democrat, my father voted Democrat, so I vote Democrat.” But in 2014, we experienced in full force the trickling down of national politics to the state and then later local elections (brought on by social media and shifts in access to information, whether fact or fiction). 

Some West Virginians started to see their positions being better reflected in the talking points of Republican national candidates in the mid-2010s, and as they changed the way they were voting at the top of the ticket, they found themselves voting for change down the ballot as well. 

Earlier this week, I spoke with a talk radio show producer in New York City whose show was considering doing a segment on Manchin. She asked: Is Joe Manchin the only kind of Democrat that could win in West Virginia right now? Is it his conservative values that have allowed him to maintain his popularity at home? 

My answer was yeah, of course. But that’s not the only reason.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, April 20, 2021 in Washington. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, April 20, 2021 in Washington. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP

See, what national media don’t see is that Joe Manchin is a known entity in West Virginia. The Manchin family is a political dynasty in this state; he has held an office almost consecutively since 1982 (probably don’t ask him about that ’96 run for governor, the only election he’s ever lost). I can’t find any publicly available polling about his name recognition in West Virginia, but I’d bet a pretty penny that it’s close to universal. That cannot be underestimated. 

Yes, Manchin has had an easy time winning elections time and time again, and his position as a moderate Democrat likely has helped maintain his appeal for voters who have always leaned a little more conservative, but in 2018, his re-election results show that Manchin’s popularity is starting to ebb at home, too. 

He won by just 3 percent of the vote, some 19,000 of more than half a million ballots. And as the national party starts to swing even further to the left, I believe we’ll see people in West Virginia become even more disillusioned with Democrats in general, making it more difficult for Manchin to get elected again. 

A Lasting Influence Or Grip? Depends on Who You Ask

Although Manchin is a tried and true West Virginia Democrat, it’s also true that he has had – and continues to have – significant influence on what that means in the Mountain State. For some, Manchin’s continued involvement in the state Democratic Party since his move to Washington has meant that the party has been able to hold on to offices that it perhaps wouldn’t have for just a bit longer (although those are becoming fewer with each election). For others, it means he’s holding the party back.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks at a commencement ceremony for nursing students from West Virginia Junior College on April 20, 2018, at Chestnut Ridge Church, in Morgantown. Photo: Jesse Wright/100 Days in Appalachia
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks at a commencement ceremony for nursing students from West Virginia Junior College on April 20, 2018, at Chestnut Ridge Church, in Morgantown. Photo: Jesse Wright/100 Days in Appalachia

Manchin has long been criticized by political insiders in West Virginia for hand-selecting the state Democratic Party Chair (usually from his home county) and having significant influence since his time holding the office himself on who becomes the party’s candidate for governor. Political reporters here could see this influence on the ground every gubernatorial election cycle. We’d watch as Manchin’s longtime campaign director and close friend would take the job helping to lead the efforts of his candidate of choice early on, backing him (it’s always been a him) with additional shared campaign staff, access, or at the very least connections to, polling resources, and after the primary cycle and their official ordination, appearances on the campaign trail itself. 

Manchin’s chosen candidates and party leaders tend to be more centrist in their political leanings – traditional, old-school West Virginia Democrats in every sense. That has upset the more progressive – albeit much smaller – wing of the state party. 

A former state party vice chair made his position on Manchin’s control known in 2016 after he was criticized and then ousted from his post for backing the presidential primary winner in the state, Bernie Sanders, at the national convention rather than Manchin’s chosen Hillary Clinton. 

But for how much longer that influence actually matters (as I mentioned before) is anybody’s guess. 

The Pressure of ‘Legacy’

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., attends a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies to examine proposed budget estimates and justification for fiscal year 2022 for the Department of Housing and Urban Development on Thursday, June 10, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: Alex Wong/Pool via AP
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., attends a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies to examine proposed budget estimates and justification for fiscal year 2022 for the Department of Housing and Urban Development on Thursday, June 10, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: Alex Wong/Pool via AP

Another lens through which West Virignians understand Manchin that national media tend to overlook is by knowing who came before. Manchin holds the seat of the longest-serving Senator in U.S. history, Democrat Robert C. Byrd, and served alongside (for a short time) another Senate great, Jay Rockefeller. 

For Manchin, the shadows of these two men surely loom large. Both (although Byrd’s history is certainly more colorful) were known for their commitment to working in a bipartisan manner, bringing members of their chamber together across the aisle to do what was right for the sake of the country. 

Both rallied Congress around significant shifts in policy in their time. Byrd was known as the rules man; he essentially wrote and rewrote Senate rules on order and the filibuster in his 51 years in the body, and also knew better than anyone how to work the system to bring millions of dollars of federal investments to the state to the continued benefit of West Virginians. 

Rockefeller, who spent 31 years in the chamber, has said his most prized accomplishments included authoring legislation to create CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program) and helping shepherd the passage of the Affordable Care Act, just to name a few of the more than 2,000 pieces of just health care-related policy he had his hands on.

Both were true statesmen – a designation that I would argue few politicians in Washington and any other Capitol deserve today. The legacy of both, and how his own legacy will compare, must weigh heavy on Manchin.

You can argue that there are parts of Byrd’s legacy Manchin is refuting. Commentator Fred Wertheiimer’s take is that Byrd himself attempted to change the filibuster on several occasions to benefit his own policy priorities, campaign finance reform among them. And while this is true of Byrd, it is certainly easy to overlook when you take the place of one of the nation’s most prolific politicians. 

Manchin has said he is protecting Byrd’s legacy by refusing to vote for changes to the Senate filibuster, by refusing to make it easier for his party or any other in power to make sweeping policy changes without bipartisan support. So, while it may not be exactly true, can you blame the man now standing in Byrd’s shadow for thinking so?

In all likelihood, we’re seeing the final term of Joe Manchin in office, whether it’s by choice or forced by changes in the politics of his state and the country at large. But for the foreseeable future, he will continue to hold (a perhaps outsized) power as that swing vote making President Biden’s policy priorities a success or failure in his first four years. 

Call it a power grab if you must, but from a West Virginian’s perspective, it looks more like hanging on for dear life. 

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