Are Conservative Democrats Going Extinct? We'll Know If Joe Manchin Survives Next Year

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Apr 17, 2017 6:30 PM
Are Conservative Democrats Going Extinct? We'll Know If Joe Manchin Survives Next Year

It’s done. Most of the key cabinet positions have been filled. Judge Neil Gorsuch is now on the Supreme Court. And it’s onto the 2018 midterms for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Manchin seems to be a dying breed: a conservative Democrat and a politician who is willing to cross the aisle to get things done. He's a Democrat due to the Kennedys, being Catholic, a member of the working class, and part of the community of union and coal workers. In all, Manchin represents the last vestiges of what the Democratic Party used to be in Appalachia. Everyone in Manchin's hometown was a Democrat, a sign of the white working class strength the Democratic Party once exhibited, which has all been lost to the Republicans. In 2016, only 26 percent of West Virginia voters voted for Hillary Clinton. Trump took the lion share with 67.9 percent, an almost 42-point trouncing. You would think that Manchin would be quaking in his boots, prepared to battle for his political life. Yet, when Politico’s Michael Kruse and Burgess Everett wrote in March about the West Virginia Senator, who has made some odd friendships, like the one with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—you can see how he survived and how he can continue to represent the Mountain State. For starters, he hosts happy hours with feuding colleagues who are political opposites, but knows how alcohol, specifically moonshine, can grease the wheels of camaraderie.

Another thing that helps is that Manchin knows his state. Everett and Burgess added that the senator learned his lessons from his past 1996 gubernatorial race, in which he lost to a more traditional liberal Democrat, Charlotte Pitt. He later endorsed the Republican in that race, Cecil Underwood, who won. Over the next few years, Manchin opted channel pragmatism than become a firebrand liberal. In 2005, he became governor, but the publication also hit the nail on the head. If Trump won West Virginia by 42 points, with die-hard progressives hating Manchin’s guts, shouldn’t he be on the chopping block? Yes—but if the Democrats want to survive past the 21st century—they need people like Manchin, who can connect with the working class that the Democratic Party needs to win back if they want to retake the presidency and Congress, despite being pro-coal, pro-gun, and anti-abortion. Hence, why some are saying that it must be good to be Sen. Manchin right now:

“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.”

“If you want to have a Democratic Party in places like West Virginia,” said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, “you have to be happy about somebody like Joe Manchin, right?”

Progressives, though, say extinction is next to inevitable for Democrats who have chosen the route Manchin has. “Our position,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, “is that Democrats in red states are shooting themselves in the foot for the November 2018 election if they are not fighting Trump.”

“Not fighting Trump” is a pretty fair description of how Manchin had spent November, December and January. He had chided House Democrats for their decision to boycott the new president’s inauguration. He had supported nearly all of Trump’s Cabinet nominees. He had even introduced Rick Perry, another former governor and Trump’s nominee for energy secretary, at his Senate hearing.

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Several people wearing red hats saying MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN asked to have their picture taken with Manchin, and he happily obliged.

Was this bipartisan glad-handing a glimpse of the way forward for the Democratic Party, or a quaint anachronism of a less partisan time? On the way back to his office, Manchin was stopped once more, by Buck McKeon, the former California congressman—another Republican. “You’re doing great,” McKeon said. He told Manchin he was in the “sweet spot.”

“Well,” Manchin said, as he walked on, mulling over the notion, “it’s either the sweet spot or the hot spot.” He laughed. “It’s some kind of spot.”

Regardless, he said, “I like it.”

He’s also shown a streak of independence. The NRA supported Manchin, but the latter allied himself with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) on a comprehensive background check bill after the horrific Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, where 20 children were killed. There was a national outcry for action and Manchin seemed ready to do something, even if it meant making him a target for the Second Amendment crowd. The bill eventually failed. 

He supported Steve Mnuchin and Jeff Sessions for treasury secretary and attorney general respectively after Donald Trump won the presidential election. But he couldn’t vote for Betsy DeVos for education secretary. He did support Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination. The article also mentioned how Democrats, knowing his strength in rural America, tapped him for a Senate leadership spot, only to have Mr. Manchin make a trip to Trump Tower a few weeks later. Still, Manchin has plenty of haters, though there seems to be some in the Democratic camp who understand the political reality on the ground:

Know this, though, Manchin added: “A Democrat that adheres to the Washington Democrat philosophy can’t win,” he said flatly. Not in West Virginia. Not in 2018. “I can tell you that.”

He has been right so far. And in spite of its recent voting patterns, West Virginia still has more registered Democrats than Republicans, after all—but the national debate about what it means to be a Democrat and the direction of the party is happening now in Manchin’s state through the prism of his current positioning and his upcoming election.

“If Joe Manchin is the answer, we’re doomed,” said Walt Auvil, an attorney in Parkersburg and a member of the state Democratic executive committee.

“There’s no future in my mind for this ‘Republican lite,’” said Chris Regan, an attorney in Wheeling considered an up-and-coming progressive in the state. “If there is going to be a Democratic resurgence in West Virginia and other states that have gone red, it’s going to be as a party that articulates its views and takes the fight to Republicans, not me-too-ism.”

“Your new West Virginia Democrat is going to be aligned with a Bernie Sanders type,” said Shawn Fluharty, a left-leaning Democratic member of the state House of Delegates, “and not a Joe Manchin type.”

That’s crazy, said Mike Plante, a longtime Democratic strategist based in the state: “Asking Joe Manchin to vote like a progressive Democrat is like asking him to put the noose around his neck and kick the chair out from under his feet.”

That debate will begin soon, though Burgess and Everett added that Manchin takes pride in the fact that people vote for him, not because he has a "D" next to his name. One thing that FiveThirtyEight observed, challenging Manchin from the Left would be disastrous. For starters, they give Manchin a 50-50 shot at winning re-election in a state that goes heavily Republican in national elections, which isn't that bad of a foundation. Second, if Manchin were bumped off in a primary, the no-name Democrat would probably be crushed:

All told, the chance of a non-incumbent Democrat winning a Senate seat in West Virginia in 2018 is probably somewhere between 1 percent and 2 percent. That’s based on a logit regression of all Senate races with no incumbent running since Manchin was first elected in 2010. The model looks at whether the Democrat2 won or lost as predicted by how Democratic- or Republican-leaning the state was in the previous two presidential elections3 compared to the nation as a whole. You can tweak this analysis (e.g., looking at all open seats since 1992 or all seats, not just those without an incumbent running) or even run a different type of model, but they all would show that a generic Democrat would be a heavy underdog in West Virginia.

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Of course, progressives opposed to Manchin don’t really seem to care that Manchin is a stronger candidate in West Virginia than a generic Democrat. They simply want someone who will oppose Trump more often.

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… I can see why progressives would be peeved with Manchin. But it’s sort of silly to compare Manchin to the median Democrat. He represents West Virginia! FiveThirtyEight’s “Trump Score,” which ignores party and instead compares how often members vote with Trump to how often we would expect them to based on Trump’s share of the vote in their state, shows Manchin as one of the Democrats’ most valuable members. Manchin votes for the Trump position occasionally, but he does so about 33 percentage points less than senators from similarly red states.

In other words, Manchin’s real worth to Democrats is that he’s a Democrat, because a Republican from West Virginia would probably vote GOP far more often. In fact, West Virginia’s other senator, Capito, has voted with Trump 100 percent of the time.

We’ll see if Manchin can survive next year. If he’s able to hold on, then the Democrats need to a) admit that total war isn’t a 50-state strategy; b) big tent over purity might be the way to go; and c) they might look to Manchin to be their bridge to a voting bloc that has since drifted away from them in droves. On the other hand, Barack Obama did a good job energizing working class voters, siphoning off enough to avoid a situation that sunk Hillary Clinton in 2016: a massive running up of the score in the rural counties. Still, it shows that rural Americans tend to not be as gung-ho about the social justice warrior nonsense that infests the progressive bastions of America. You’re going to need Joe Manchin to speak (for lack of a better term) Democrat to them and possibly make traditionally red congressional districts and states competitive. The good news is that the Democratic Party won’t be as insane. The bad news is that Republicans could lose winnable elections. The Democratic National Committee has pledged to retake the ground they lost in rural America, but their vocal progressive base isn’t one to concede that issues like Black Lives Matter, safe spaces, political correctness, transgender bathrooms, and lectures about privilege should take a backseat. That would lead to a triggering of epic proportions and might cause the Left more heartburn than it’s worth. Hence, why the white working class outreach initiatives by Manchin, or Obama, is probably not in the cards.

If Mr. Manchin survives, then there may be room for other conservative Democrats, who seem to be on the endangered species list, to emerge. At the same time, the massive Democratic losses in the rural areas could make this a multi-generational effort. While I certainly would like a Republican to win in West Virginia, the reality is should Manchin win--we have a Democrat (maybe one of the last) that the GOP can work with in the Senate. It's not perfect, but having a right-leaning Democratic senator who is willing to cross the aisle is better than a Warren or a Reid carbon copy, right?