Manchin goes full MAGA – POLITICO

Manchin goes full MAGA – POLITICO.

Joe Manchin wants you to know he really likes Donald Trump.

The West Virginia senator doesn’t put it quite that way. But more than any other Democrat in Congress, he’s positioned himself as a vocal Trump ally. In fact, the senator, up for reelection in a state Trump won by more than 40 points, told POLITICO he isn’t ruling out endorsing Trump for reelection in 2020 — a position practically unheard of for a politician with a “D” next to his name.

“I’m open to supporting the person who I think is best for my country and my state,” Manchin said this week from the driver’s seat of his Grand Cherokee, insisting he’s game to work with any president of either party. “If his policies are best, I’ll be right there.”

Trump’s popularity in West Virginia has Republicans salivating over the prospect of knocking off the legendary 70-year-old senator and former governor this fall. In response, Manchin is sidling up to the president — his policies, his nominees, at times even Trump himself — as the independent-minded Democrat prepares for the toughest race of his career against GOP state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

The president recently mocked Manchin in front of the Senate GOP caucus as trying to hug him all the time — only a slight exaggeration, by Manchin’s telling.

“We just kind of do the man-bump type thing. That’s it. And I think he’s pulling me as much as I’m pulling him,” Manchin said in describing his physical embraces with the president.

Despite Trump’s recent criticisms of him, Manchin maintains a line with Trump. They last talked two weeks ago — after Trump teased him in front of GOP senators — and the Democratic senator is hopeful that Trump will treat him with kid gloves this fall. In Manchin’s estimation, he is often the “only thing” keeping the president from becoming a down-the-line partisan.

At times, Manchin was the only Democrat who clapped during Trump’s State of the Union address. This spring, Manchin killed liberals’ hopes of blocking Gina Haspel for CIA director by getting behind her early. Manchin supported Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, voted for now-embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and even backed the president’s hard-line immigration proposal.

“I’m with him sometimes more than other Republican senators are with him,” Manchin said.

But Manchin has been frustrated that every time he thinks he’s got the president in a moderate place on immigration or background checks for guns, Trump goes to the right. And he hasn’t always been there for Trump, most conspicuously on the GOP’s tax reform bill, which attracted no Democratic votes. He also voted against Betsy DeVos to be education secretary, Tom Price to lead the Health and Human Services Department and Obamacare repeal.

And that gives the GOP enough of a lane to attack the centrist Democrat as someone who will never be a reliable ally of the president compared to a Republican.

“Joe Manchin is not fully supportive of the Trump agenda. If Joe Manchin says that he votes with the president 50-60 percent of the time? In my book that’s a failure,” Morrisey said in a telephone interview.

Technically, Manchin is a Democrat. In reality, he’s a man without a party. His discomfort is apparent all around: He needs to appeal to Trump voters in a historically Democratic state that’s turned blood red. He had an infamously chilly relationship with President Barack Obama — he still refuses to talk about who he voted for in 2012 — and now has regrets about supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Summing up his predicament, Manchin said, “Washington Democrats are making it more difficult for me to be a West Virginia Democrat.”

In an interview during a drive across his state’s Eastern Panhandle, Manchin revealed that he repeatedly threatened to revoke his support for Clinton after she remarked, in March 2016, that she planned “to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” First, Manchin told Bill Clinton that he would withdraw his support, as the former president pleaded with him not to. Then Hillary Clinton called him.

“She said, ‘Please don’t. Let me come to West Virginia, I need to explain.’ I said, ‘That’s a bad idea, you shouldn’t come,’” Manchin recounted.

But the Clintons came, and they toured Mingo County, an economically devastated area in southern West Virginia. Even as he still threatened to withdraw his endorsement, Manchin explained that the area needed highways, broadband Internet and a hydroelectric dam — and Clinton promised that she could make it happen as president.

“It was a mistake. It was a mistake politically,” Manchin said of continuing to support Clinton. But he said her $20 billion commitment to his state was too much to pass up. “Is this about me? Or trying to help a part of my state that’s never recovered and is having a tough time.”

Manchin sometimes sounds apologetic for the times he’s gone against Trump. He likes DeVos but said her lack of experience forced his hand.

And he admits that it would have made his reelection campaign much easier had he voted for the tax reform bill. He spent months trying to work with the GOP on it and received assurances from Trump, who badly wanted a Democrat on board. But Manchin said he couldn’t go along because the legislation killed Obamacare’s individual mandate and cut taxes on the wealthy.

Manchin bristles at Republicans’ main attack line against him: that he voted against his constituents’ own interests to toe the party line.

“Joe takes everything personally,” said Ranson Mayor Keith “Duke” Pierson. “I do think he is offended.”

Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana often vote with Manchin, and each has been rewarded with praise at recent bill-signing ceremonies that they’re using in their reelection campaigns. But Manchin separates himself from others in his party with his warm rhetoric toward the president, finding little to criticize Trump for in a series of interviews on Monday other than the president’s self-proclaimed ability to pardon himself.

“If it’s good for the state and it’s good for the nation, I’m going to support that person,” Manchin said. “A lot of the policies he’s done [have] been good for the state.”

Manchin’s attempts to straddle Trump’s line have left Republicans unimpressed.

“He’s a nice guy. Everybody likes Joe. But he has to vote strategically,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, a top GOP electoral strategist. “This is going to be the race of Joe’s life.”

Still, Cornyn won’t predict that Manchin will lose. And Senate Democrats said they trust Manchin is doing what he needs to do get reelected, even if it sometimes pains them.

One senator who requested anonymity said Democrats tolerate Manchin’s rhetoric because he’s shown an ability to survive as a Democrat in a state where the party is an endangered species. And that’s the only way Democrats can ever win back the Senate majority, whether it’s this year or in 2020.

Even Bernie Sanders, who has almost no relationship with Manchin, is on board. Sort of.

“I want to see the Democrats regain the majority of the Senate. Absolutely,” Sanders said when asked whether he supports Manchin’s campaign.

Manchin still calls being governor the best job he’s ever had. And on this sparkling June day, he is acting a bit like the state’s chief executive.

The Democratic senator breezes through a senior center in Ranson to shake hands with elderly folks. Then it’s off to the Jefferson Day Report Center to visit with young people battling opioid addiction.

Finally, Manchin pays a brief visit to an emergency management center in Kearneysville as the authorities react to the swelling Potomac and Shenandoah rivers after torrential rains. Asked when his campaign against Morrisey will get serious, Manchin offers: “August.”

Though Morrisey dings Manchin as a “liberal” and enabler of Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, Manchin is more gentle in his criticism. He knocks Morrisey for running for Congress in New Jersey but stays away from the Democratic Party’s attack that Morrisey is a lobbyist with backing from the pharmaceutical industry.

“He’s not a bad candidate, I just can’t see Patrick Morrisey representing the state of West Virginia,” Manchin said. “Patrick has to answer what was his motivating force of coming to West Virginia? Was it politics for himself or to save West Virginia?”

Win or lose, Manchin said this is — “for sure” — his last campaign. And he says there’s still time for Trump to get on the Manchin train in a state where Manchin won his last race by 24 points and Obama lost by nearly 27 points.

“Mr. President, here’s the thing: What we find out is people like you and like me in my state. They know me. In a state that you’re extremely popular in … you won’t have success” campaigning against me, Manchin said, recounting his recent telephone call with Trump. “Because I am going to win, [and] it’s not going to look good on you.”

Politico · by Burgess Everett · June 6, 2018

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