Is Sen. Joe Manchin Doomed to Defeat?
The day before the inauguration of Donald Trump, in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia was sitting at his desk eating chili out of a paper cup when his cellphone buzzed. He didn’t recognize the number, but he answered anyway, something he almost always does.
“Hey, hey—governor!” he said. “How ya doin’, buddy?”
It was Jeb Bush. The two have known each other for years. Bush was the governor of Florida at the same time Manchin was the governor of West Virginia, and “governors have a bond,” Manchin mused to Bush on the phone. But Bush had not called to catch up. He had called to lobby. One of Trump’s Cabinet nominees was in trouble—Betsy DeVos, his pick to be education secretary—and she would need help to win confirmation in the Senate. Two moderate Republicans would vote against her, and Manchin, perhaps the most conservative Democrat in Washington, was the likeliest candidate to break from his party and push DeVos over the line. He had already proved his willingness to back other nominees. Could he see his way to getting behind Trump’s education pick as well?
The former Republican presidential front-runner is not a voice most Democrats would expect to find on the line, or so clearly take in stride. But most Democrats don’t sit where Joe Manchin sits, in one of the most unusual positions in Washington today. The instant Trump won his surprise victory in November, all eyes turned to Manchin as maybe the most vulnerable senator on the 2018 electoral map. Trump had swept Manchin’s state by an astonishing 42 points. His home-state voters hadn’t just leaned away from the candidate he endorsed—they had rejected her more convincingly than any voters outside Wyoming.
But if Manchin is worried, he isn’t behaving that way. In fact, as Bush’s personal entreaty suggests, Manchin is being courted by both parties: He was tapped for the Senate Democratic leadership within days of the election, but that didn’t prevent him from making a visit to Trump Tower almost a month later, briefly putting his name in the mix for a Cabinet job. Nationally, the party needs him for his 48th vote in the Senate and also as a kind of translator for its ideas to Trump’s America. As for his home state, he seems almost relieved no longer to be tied to the liberal policies of a president his voters hated. And he doesn’t mind the attention from the new one.“I’ve had more personal time with Trump in two months,” he marveled, “than I had with [Barack] Obama in eight years.”
Manchin’s comfort working with Trump has infuriated progressives, which have lambasted him as an enemy of party purity—a Democrat in name only—and there’s chatter in West Virginia about a possible primary from his left. Emboldened Republicans, meanwhile, see the seat in red-shifting West Virginia as theirs for the taking. It’s hard to view his 2018 race as anything other than a referendum on what it means to be a Democrat. Here at the hyperdivisive dawn of the era of Trump, Manchin sits smack in the middle of the unresolved debate over whether rattled Democrats should respond to an angry base by veering harder to the left or instead notch some compromises in an effort to regain the trust of people who aren’t clustered on the coasts or in cities and college towns. Is Manchin, in other words, part of the answer for the Democratic Party, a piece of the future—or is he the end of a line, one of the last of his breed?
“If the question is, ‘Is there space for Joe Manchin inside the tent of the Democratic Party?’” said Matt Bennett of Third Way, a group that advocates for center-left Democrats, “the answer is, ‘There better be.’ Or else we’re going to be in the minority forever.”