Most Democrats on the election ballot are hoping a blue wave of progressive support will help sweep them to power — but not Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Manchin built a political brand as a moderate and pragmatist that’s allowed him to navigate the state’s strong tilt to the right over the last 20 years. It’s also given him a bit of a shield against President Donald Trump.
West Virginia was the most pro-Trump state in 2016, yet the former two-term governor is in a unique spot compared with other red-state Senate Democrats, such as North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp. Manchin has had a comfortable lead in recent weeks as the election nears, although some polls show the race is tightening.
Campaigning at home, Manchin stresses his work with Republicans to tackle the state’s opioid crisis, his support for Trump’s pursuit of bilateral trade deals, his vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and his efforts to encourage Trump to put more money into roads and bridges.
“I told President Trump it could be the greatest thing we ever do,” Manchin said about infrastructure funds during a candidate forum at the Beckley-Raleigh Chamber of Commerce in late October. “A pothole doesn’t know whether it’s Democrat or Republican. A pothole attacks us all.”
Manchin and his Republican opponent, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, will debate on Thursday night, and Trump will make another try at shaking up the race with a rally on Friday in Huntington, his third trip to the state.
The GOP is throwing resources into a drive to unseat Manchin with continued television attack ads and supplementing Trump’s appearances with campaign visits to the Mountain State by other prominent Republicans including Vice President Mike Pence, Donald Trump Jr. and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.
‘Part of That Team’
Morrisey is bearing down on a point Manchin would rather not dwell upon: that their race will help determine whether Democrats take control of the Senate.
“When they try to impeach our president, when they try to bring him down, Joe Manchin’s part of that team,” Morrisey said at the same candidates’ forum.
A Real Clear Politics average of three polls conducted in recent weeks showed Manchin with an 8.7% lead over Morrisey.
Morrisey has expressed confidence he can get an added burst of voter enthusiasm in the campaign’s closing days.
“I’m convinced that as voters see the difference between dishonest Washington liberal Joe Manchin and conservative fighter Patrick Morrisey, this isn’t going to be a close contest,” Morrisey said in an interview.
Analysts say four other Democrats from deep red states — Heitkamp, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Montana’s Jon Tester — are in greater danger than Manchin. These are the pivotal Senate races, along with a Democratic seat in swing-state Florida and three Republican-held seats in Arizona, Tennessee and Nevada.
Risk of Losing
“There’s a risk of him losing, but he’s in the best shape of the five Democratic incumbents in the dark red states,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball election forecaster at the University of Virginia.
Morrisey is aided by West Virginia’s shift toward Republicans and Trump’s popularity there.
Once a Democratic bastion that embraced the New Deal, West Virginia sent to the Senate such party heavyweights as Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller. But the loss of coal jobs and United Mine Workers membership pushed the state rightward, with voters seeing Republicans as more likely to fight environmental rules they say are contributing to the state’s economic decline.
Manchin is one of just two Democrats holding statewide elective office, and no Democratic presidential nominee has won the state since 1996. The legislature shifted to Republican control in 2014 for the first time since the 1930s. Last year, Governor Jim Justice announced, at a rally with Trump, that he was leaving the Democratic Party to become a Republican.
A Rifle Shot
Manchin has built an image as a centrist who stands up for West Virginia’s coal mining industry, fights red tape and works for bipartisan compromises. He backs gun rights, and his 2010 Senate campaign featured an ad in which he fired a rifle shot through the Democrats’ bill to create a cap-and-trade system regulating greenhouse gas emissions.
He’s voted 61% of the time with Trump’s position, more than any other Democrat in the chamber, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, a nonpartisan website that focuses on politics and opinion polling.
Morrisey, elected attorney general in 2012, has shown a knack for fiery rhetoric and has tied himself firmly to Trump, attributes that helped him win a bruising GOP primary against U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and Don Blankenship, an ex-convict and coal baron who ran a race-baiting campaign.
Morrisey is keeping up an intense schedule. On a Thursday in October, he barnstormed through an event touting the Trump tax cuts at a family-owned printing plant in Charleston, a rally with Paul in Parkersburg, and an anti-abortion rally on the steps of the State Capitol. There, he touted a proposed state constitutional amendment on the election ballot that would bar state funds from being used to fund most abortions.
“I will never, ever waffle on pro-life issues,” Morrisey told about 200 activists.
‘I Get a Feeling’
By contrast, Manchin’s campaign schedule plays down partisanship, recently attending a college homecoming parade, a ribbon-cutting at a newly renovated Charleston convention center, and an apple harvest festival. At the convention center, Manchin said in an interview that his lifelong roots in the state, voting record and strong name recognition give him confidence in his prospects.
“I get a feeling for every race I’ve been in,” he said. “This one feels as good if not better than any race I’ve ever run.”
He said Morrisey doesn’t understand that state residents, while embracing conservatism, also favor some government solutions to social welfare challenges.
“If they want a 100% yes-man for whatever they want to do in Washington, that will be Patrick Morrisey,” Manchin said. “If you want a 100% yes-man for the people of West Virginia, that’s me.”
Coal Miners’ Benefits
Manchin has found ways to do things for his state. He helped push through extended health care benefits for retired coal miners and recently secured funds for the opioid epidemic and for local airports in Parkersburg and Beckley.
Manchin, though, sided with his party on the two biggest policy debates since Trump took office. Last year, he voted against the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare, arguing it would worsen the opioid epidemic. And he voted against the massive tax cut after Republicans refused to lessen companies’ tax breaks to provide more relief for middle-income people.
He’s also had controversies. In 2016, his daughter Heather Bresch, chief executive officer of Mylan NV, was criticized as prices soared for the company’s EpiPen device used to treat severe allergic reactions. While Manchin urged the company to address the problem, the matter is being used against him in campaign ads.
Morrisey, a former lobbyist who represented the pharmaceutical industry, has baggage to overcome as well. He’s only lived in the state for 12 years. Also, in February he joined a lawsuit signed by 20 GOP-led states challenging the Affordable Care Act. Manchin seized on it, saying Morrisey seeks to end Obamacare’s popular insurance protection for people with pre-existing conditions.
Morrisey also faced pressure over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Oct. 16 remarks that Congress needs to rein in entitlement programs to help control the federal debt. Questioned at the candidates’ forum, Morrisey pledged not to cut Social Security and Medicare, which have strong public backing in his state.
“We have to be able to assure people that those are going to be off the table,” Morrisey said.
Undecided voter Landon Blankenship, a 38-year-old Republican from Pineville, said he is leaning toward Morrisey but it’s a hard choice. He said he’s angered that Manchin didn’t support the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare, but likes the way the senator supported some Trump nominees including Kavanaugh.
“Manchin has a record of reaching across the aisle,” Blankenship said. “That makes it more difficult for me.”
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, a one-time Republican who switched to independent after Trump won the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, said the president has a lot of pull in the state and that Manchin’s survival is no sure thing.
“Manchin has a better than 50% chance of winning, but not much better,” said Jones, who is backing the incumbent senator.
— Read Democrats See Primary Land Mines, Fresh Faces and Leftward Pull, on ThinkAdvisor.