Red state Democrats were placed in a bind this election cycle. They were already dealing with the fact that they weren’t operating on friendly territory. This cycle Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Jon Tester (D-MT) all represent states that Trump carried—big league. In today’s partisan atmosphere, they’re already a degree or two away from being cooked.
The Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh only added more pain, with this crop facing an impossible decision. They could vote for Kavanaugh, who was beset with baseless and unsubstantiated sexual misconduct allegations at the last minute in a well-orchestrated left-wing political hit job, and win re-election, but be forced into the Democratic dog house for all coming time. Or, they could stand with their liberal colleagues, vote “no,” and be forced to update their resumes come January. Donnelly, Tester, McCaskill, and Heitkamp all voted no.
I wouldn’t be shocked if McCaskill, Donnelly, and Heitkamp do not return in the next Congress, especially Heitkamp, whose unforced error in responding to her Republican opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer, about the Kavanaugh fight and sexual assault might have delivered the death blow to her meager chances of winning. She was already down by nearly double-digits, but she printed an open letter ad in response to Cramer that listed survivors of sexual assault: the problem is that a great many of these names never authorized disclosure, and some weren’t even survivors at all. The damage is done.
Yet, with Manchin, he’s good at retail politics. He enjoys the added benefit that even Republican’s like him, with some Trump voters saying they will back him come November. We saw that on Vice News when GOP pollster Frank Luntz asked a focus group earlier this month about the Kavanaugh fight. And oh yes, they definitely noticed that Manchin’s vote for Kavanaugh was for political reasons (i.e., winning another term), but the overwhelming majority was still going to vote for him. They were also not sure about the sexual misconduct allegations lobbed against Kavanaugh:
So what is it about West Virginia voters that allows them to walk a line between support for Trump and support for Manchin — and how did Manchin’s vote for Kavanaugh affect their view of the senator? Luntz recently convened a group of 12 swing voters to try to answer that question.
Participants had either voted for both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in the last three elections, or voted only Republican but expressed support for Manchin. The focus group was conducted on the evening of October 5, after Manchin had announced he would be supporting Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Most of the panel seemed ambivalent about the allegations lodged against Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford, saying they believed she was assaulted, but not necessarily by Kavanaugh.
"We know that Joe Manchin is a political opportunist, right? He licked his finger, he stuck it in the wind, and he said, 'Which way is this vote gonna go? I'm gonna jump on that,' and that's the only reason he did that. I mean, he followed the lead of Chuck Schumer," said Phalen Kuckuck, a Republican political consultant.
Some, like Kuckuck, saw Manchin's vote for Kavanaugh as a nakedly political move, while others said it means he’s listening to his constituents.
While Manchin didn’t get high marks with the group, he has a solid showing of support from them. Polling showed that if Manchin voted for Kavanaugh, his chances of winning re-election would almost be assured. Throughout this race, he’s held a commanding lead. He’s just a good fit for the state, as RCP noted in July (via RCP)
The RCP Polling Average shows him leading his opponent by seven percentage points, with leads of double digits in two of the last three polls.
Why is this? There are two key reasons. First, Manchin is simply a good fit for the state, ideologically. While we tend to think of states under a red/blue dichotomy, the truth is messier, even in these polarized times. At the national level, when voters in Massachusetts are given a choice between fiscally liberal Democrats and socially conservative Republicans, their preferences lead them to overwhelmingly choose the Democrats. In much the same way, given this same choice, voters in West Virginia now choose the Republicans.
But at the state level, things are more complicated and nuanced. State parties are better able to take on the character of their locales. In Massachusetts, Republicans are able to put up candidates who are not only fiscally liberal, but also socially liberal. Hence, Democrats have only held the Massachusetts governorship for eight of the last 28 years; incumbent Gov. Charlie Baker seems poised to extend that streak to 32 years.
It is much the same with Joe Manchin. He is a pro-life Democrat who has supported most of President Trump’s appointees. He threatened to retire in January in the face of the leftward lurch by his party. At the same time, he is more fiscally liberal than the average Republican, which probably matches his relatively poor state better than would a Club for Growth-endorsed candidate.
Now, Manchin could still fall—and even with his support for Kavanaugh, Mitch McConnell said they’re still going to try and boot him this year. But he’s in the best shape than the rest of his red state colleagues.
It comes to show you that even if people don’t like their candidate, they still might vote for him, which is why some of these folks who latch onto favorability numbers should tread carefully this cycle. In an era of increased tribalism, stopping the other guy is becoming more important. We are at war. There are only two choices. It’s not a good time to be a moderate who has avoided picking a side for far too long.