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.
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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.