Two years ago, Joe Manchin was predicted to lose in a state gone crazy for Trump. Turns out in West Virginia he might be more popular than the president.
PEACH CREEK, W.Va.—The silver Yukon XL barely had come to a crunching halt in the gravel lot in front of the pig roast here at a place called Houn’ Dog’s when out from the shotgun seat bounded Senator Joe Manchin. Wearing brown boots, blue jeans, a garish sweater and a confident grin, Manchin homed in on a crowd of people sporting shirts shouting UNION PROUD and caps announcing JESUS IS MY BOSS. The space between Manchin and his constituents quickly dissolved in a swirl of handshakes, hugs and kisses on cheeks. “Git ‘er done!” he called out. “Git ‘er done!”
This three-plus-hour swing-through on Saturday night in mostly forlorn Logan County followed by a two-day, 11-stop, 700-mile, get-out-the-vote motorcycle ride around the rest of the state added up to the capstone of a campaign that produced one of the most striking results of these volatile midterms.
Two years ago, when Donald Trump was elected president, Manchin was considered instantly the most endangered Senate Democrat in the country. Donald Trump, after all, won West Virginia by 42.2 points, his largest margin of victory with the exception of Wyoming. And yet on Tuesday night, Manchin, 71, the most prominent politician in this state for the better part of a generation, was reelected to his second full term by a comfortable margin—distinguishing him from other incumbent red-state Democrats like Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota who were drubbed soundly.
Statistically speaking, it was a stunning result, a significant party-line swing in just 24 months. And it happened in spite of Trump‘s repeated trips to the state, hoping to deliver a knockout blow to a Democrat living on a borrowed time. For those, though, who know West Virginia well, and who have watched Manchin for decades, the victory was at most a mild surprise.
He won because of his singular combination of longevity, familiarity and conviviality, according to aides and advisers, critics and advocates, local political experts and voters across the ideological spectrum. In addition to the benefit of a flawed opponent in Patrick Morrisey, they told me, Manchin brought to the race what he always does—an uncommon face-to-face skill set, an uncanny knack at reading public sentiment, and a keen and exacting political calculus. “Joe Manchin is the best retail politician I’ve seen other than Bill Clinton,” said Patrick Hickey, a political scientist at West Virginia University. “He knows West Virginia, and West Virginians,” added Booth Goodwin, a former United States attorney and a Democrat who ran for governor in 2016, “and he knows what is of interest to them—intuitively.”
Still, few spots in America have shifted politically faster and more decisively than this state, swinging from nearly entirely blue to almost totally red over the last 20 years. To maintain his preeminent political standing, Manchin has performed an increasingly perilous “high-wire act,” in the words of University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. And the last two years were the most challenging yet. He tight-roped by voting against Trump’s tax cut and the GOP’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act while also voting pro-Trump more than any other Democrat—from the president’s cabinet picks to both of his Supreme Court nominees. He was the lone Democrat to vote for Brett Kavanaugh, a decision that enraged his left-leaning constituents. But that vote also robbed his opponent of a potentially lethal line of attack, letting Manchin campaign as a bipartisan, practically anti-partisan option. “He has done a really good job of threading the needle,” said Hoppy Kercheval, West Virginia’s dean of radio broadcasters and one of its most astute political observers. “He doesn’t campaign as a Democrat. He campaigns as Joe Manchin.”
And that in turn allowed him to maintain a broad and unique coalition: centrists from both parties, conservatives and ardent Trump supporters, and enough liberals and progressives, too, even if he leaves them frequently frustrated and exasperated. “We’re still willing to give him a vote, but that doesn’t mean we’ll shake his hand,” said Ryan Frankenberry, the executive director of the West Virginia Working Families Party. “I know a lot of people that voted for him, and I don’t know one person that did it happily,” said Rusty Williams, a Bernie Sanders and Richard Ojeda supporter and medical marijuana activist. “One of the quotes I keep hearing is, ‘Yeah, I threw up in my mouth a little bit when I voted for Joe.’” Ballots, of course, don’t reflect such mixed feelings. Votes are votes.
At Houn’ Dog’s, I tried to ask Manchin about his unusual and durable consortium of support.
“It’s West Virginia,” he said. “What can I say?”
Parsing numbers and polls doesn’t reflect how Manchin does what he does. It only makes sense when seen up close. Because in the ensuing hour or so, I watched Manchin shimmy into a scrum of people dancing to a four-man band called One Horse Town. He belted out the lyrics to the West Virginia anthem, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” I watched him yell his approval for a thrilling last-second win by the WVU Mountaineers football team. And I watched him throw horseshoes, calm a crying baby and sneak a shot of moonshine given to him by Houn’ Dog.
Glen D. Atkins is his given name, but everybody calls him Houn’ Dog. “Me and my dad, we raised rabbit dogs, and I got pretty good at barkin’,” he told me when I asked him why. Houn’ Dog, it turned out, voted for Trump in 2016, and he’ll vote for Trump in 2020, he said, but he’ll never not vote for Manchin as well. “He don’t leave nobody out,” he explained.
Houn’ Dog wasn’t the only Trump-Manchin voter I met at the pig roast.
“Trump all the way,” said William Prichard, sipping from a koozied can of Natty Light.
“I believe ol’ Manchin’s a good dude,” he said.
Some 14 hours later, and 120 miles away, after the second leg of the motorcycle ride, at a gas station in Lewisburg, I watched Manchin show up on his Harley-Davidson Road King, cheered on by a cluster of sign-waving women. One had on a hoodie from last year’s women’s march in Washington. “NASTY WOMAN,” blared the shirt of another. She proudly showed it to Manchin. These were the kinds of women who might have been angered by his Kavanaugh vote. But here they were. He gave them all hugs. “Appreciate y’all so much,” he said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Then he put back on his shiny black helmet and roared off again.
This could have gone so differently in so many different ways. He could have joined Trump’s cabinet. (He had multiple opportunities.) He could have changed parties. (The governor did.) He could have just … not run. (He reportedly considered it.) But he didn’t do any of those things. Instead, Manchin ran, and ran as a Democrat, and he did it with a blunt, almost cocksure edge.
“I don’t give a shit about getting elected,” he told me shortly after Trump’s inauguration.
Win or lose, he was going to do it his way.
At the beginning of last year, Manchin all but taunted liberal activists in his state. “Vote me out!” he said to a group of them on a conference call. “I’m not changing. Find somebody else who can beat me …”
Democrats around the country worried. “When this campaign started,” longtime Manchin adviser Larry Puccio told me, “some folks in Washington shared with me that they had major concerns.” He told them not to fret. “I explained to the folks in Washington who had the concern, ‘You don’t live here, and you just don’t understand how people feel about Joe Manchin.’”
A nephew of renowned West Virginia pol A. James Manchin—“a parade of handshakes, kisses and oratory,” his biographer wrote—Joe Manchin was first elected to office when he won a seat in the state’s house of delegates in 1982. He was a state senator, the secretary of state and the governor for six years, and he was elected to the U.S. Senate in a special election in 2010. In 2012, in what looks in retrospect like a telling preview of this year, Manchin won by a whopping 24 points even as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won by even more—a gaping disparity showing West Virginia’s growing preference for Republicans … and one Democrat.
In these last two years, as he navigated his most delicate balancing act, Manchin justified his vote against the Trump tax cut by arguing it would add to a soaring budget deficit and benefit corporations and the wealthy rather than middle- and lower-middle-class West Virginians. Explaining his vote against the ACA repeal attempt, he stressed the outsized importance to West Virginians of Medicaid expansion and coverage for those with preexisting conditions. Nodding, however, to Trump and his legion of supportive locals, he greenlighted all but four of the president’s cabinet selections; he voted against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, for example, because he felt her school-choice philosophy clashed with the public education priorities of West Virginia. And when it came time to consider the nomination that Trump prized above all others, Manchin was one of only three Senate Democrats who voted to put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.
On the campaign trail, after dispatching a primary challenge on his left, he drew a beatable, comparatively uncharismatic general-election foe in Morrisey, West Virginia’s attorney general but a New Jersey native. Manchin painted him as an out-of-touch outsider, a “yes man” who would answer to Republican leaders in Washington more than the people back home. By contrast, to bolster his own across-the-aisle cred and his Mountaineer bona fides, Manchin trumpeted the endorsements of West Virginia sports notables Nick Saban, Bob Huggins and Jerry West. On issues, he assured voters of his support for Second Amendment Rights. For the second time in his career, he shot an ad by literally shooting a document he didn’t like, another agile act of needle-threading. He has a D rating from the National Rifle Association—he had an A rating as recently as 2012 before dropping in the eyes of the organization after he proposed bipartisan legislation for limited tighter background checks—but few people here think he’s roundly anti-gun. “Ain’t nobody taking my gun,” he said last month. The Catholic and pro-life Manchin, meanwhile, expressed opposition during a debate to an especially stringent proposed anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution.
As Trump kept returning to West Virginia, from Charleston to Wheeling to Huntington, staging rallies on some of his friendliest terrain to boost Morrisey and other Republican candidates but also to try to kneecap Manchin, Manchin often responded with a rhetorical wink: “It’s always special when the president of the United States comes to West Virginia.” He sometimes, though, added a warning, too: It wouldn’t work, and he told Trump as much. Polls in the state showed support for Trump. And for Manchin. “I am going to win,” he said to the president this summer.
In the end, though, it was his Kavanaugh vote that served as the distillation of this race. So close to the election, the contentious, nationally all-consuming episode was a fraught scenario for senators in Manchin’s position. North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp voted no and reaped a whirlwind of campaign donations—but lost. Manchin, on the other hand, flouted his party—and managed to turn what could have been a lose-lose proposition into a chance to cinch up a win. With his decision, he mitigated potential ammunition for Morrisey, delivered a closing argument to Trump supporters who might have been on the fence about his allegiance to the president, and gauged that he would be able to weather expected rancor from liberals without ultimately losing their votes or at least too many of them.
“My sense,” said Hickey, the WVU political scientist, “is he picked up more votes than he lost with the Kavanaugh vote.”
“He was in touch with West Virginians on this issue, as he is on so many issues,” former congressman and Manchin surrogate Nick Rahall told me. “He knew exactly where his constituents stood.”
It was true even for a collection of progressive activists from Parkersburg who wanted him to vote no so badly they traveled to Washington and pleaded with him in a conference room in his offices on Capitol Hill.
After Manchin voted yes, they were “heartbroken” Jeanne Peters told me. They were “pissed off and angry and ranting,” said Kim Williams, Peters’ wife. They were “mad as hell,” added Cammy Murray, their friend.
They all voted for Manchin.
“You have to look at the big picture,” Murray said.
“The reality is politics is a team sport,” Williams said. “For all my friends who are anti-Trumpers, it’s like, ‘Y’all, you have to vote for Joe. This is not the time to be screwing around.”
“I think there are a lot of people who feel like we can’t have 2016 again,” Peters said, referring to third-party votes or dispirited no-shows that contributed to the election of Trump. “I see people saying, ‘I made this choice in 2016, I see the consequences, I can’t make it again—so I’m going to vote for him.’ There’s so much on the line here.”
And they convinced others. “They said, ‘Hey, we need you to vote for this guy,’” said Simon Hargus, who ran for state senate this year. “Without them, I probably would’ve been no.” He was far from alone. The Wood County Democratic Executive Committee? “It’s a whole bunch of liberals who begrudgingly voted for Manchin,” he said.
“Those kinds of progressive voters in West Virginia tend to be higher-information voters, so they understand the calculation of what their vote means,” said Mike Plante, a West Virginia-based Democratic consultant. “And while they may be upset with them about the Kavanaugh vote, or this vote, or that vote, they also realize the alternative is much worse from their political perspective.”
And for Drew Payne, a Manchin friend “as conservative as they come” and who was a Trump backer “the day he came down the escalator,” the only thing Manchin did wrong with respect to Kavanaugh was that he waited as long as he did to vote yes. “He’d’ve gotten more votes from Republicans if he’d’ve come out earlier,” Payne told me.
Regardless of timing, though, I wondered how many votes Manchin had gotten for himself with his vote for Kavanaugh.
Payne responded with the operative word.
Politico · by Michael Kruse · November 6, 2018