West Virginia is losing a congressional seat, resulting in a race between two Republican incumbents in one of the state’s two remaining congressional districts. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., chimed in on the race this weekend in the most on-brand manner conceivable.
Manchin tells West Virginia voters in a 30-second commercial that if he “can’t go home and explain it, I can’t vote for it,” which is why he rejected Build Back Better. Despite what his GOP primary opponent, Rep. Alex Mooney, asserts, Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., was also opposed to the bill, according to Manchin. Manchin stated that McKinley “has consistently opposed irresponsible spending because it doesn’t make sense for West Virginia.”
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The senator came to the following conclusion: “Alex Mooney has demonstrated that he is all about him. West Virginians, on the other hand, understand that David McKinley is all about them.” There are a few things to consider here.
First and foremost, it’s a little annoying that Manchin is claiming his opposition to Build Back Better as a political success. Since Manchin stepped away from the package in December, effectively killing it in the Senate, President Joe Biden’s economic agenda has remained frozen. It’s a bit disconcerting that Manchin is promoting his opposition to Build Back Better as a political win.
Since then, Manchin has signaled that he would support a smaller package that addresses tax reform, prescription medication prices, and energy, but those things don’t add up to the revolutionary social spending plan that many Democrats hoped to achieve before the November elections.
And the best term to describe the pace of the discussions on this hypothetical plan that Manchin would support is “sclerotic.” Second, it should never be suggested that Manchin lacks a keen knowledge of political tactics. He’s kept the national Democratic Party at arm’s length since joining the Senate, portraying himself as a nonpartisan dealmaker who cares more about getting things done for West Virginians than following the party’s leaders.
That image has played a key role in his decision to oppose both the Build Back Better Act and the filibuster ban in the Senate. One of Mooney’s key criticisms of McKinley is that he supported the $555 billion bipartisan infrastructure plan put into law by Biden last year.
As you may recall, Manchin was a key author of that bill, so endorsing McKinley appears to be the senator repaying the favor. It also makes sense for Manchin to help rescue an infrequent ally rather than allowing Mooney, who has former President Donald Trump’s support, to take the seat.
That said, I have to question where Manchin’s energy for West Virginia Democrats is coming from. We’ve taken it for granted that we’ll only be able to elect Manchin-style Democrats to Congress in a state that has been increasingly Republican over the previous 20 years. But why hasn’t Manchin done more to encourage Democrats who share his values to run for office, or at the very least backed candidates who have attempted to oust Republican incumbents in his state?
In 2014, Manchin endorsed Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., in his bid to retain the (soon-to-be-defunct) third congressional district seat. “Nick is a straight shooter,” says the narrator. In a commercial endorsing Rahall, Manchin claimed, “Nick works with me every day to oppose the Obama administration’s attack on coal.”
(During Barack Obama’s administration, it was a widespread opinion among West Virginia Democrats.) In a 2014 commercial, U.S. Senate candidate Natalie Tennant turned out the lights in the White House in support of coal, while Manchin famously shot a cap and trade bill with a gun during his 2010 campaign.)
Rahall and Tennant both lost that election, leaving Manchin as the sole Democrat elected to federal office in West Virginia. Rich Ojeda, a Democratic state senator, ran in 2018 to reclaim the seat that Rahall had lost four years before.
According to Politico magazine, Ojeda was originally encouraged to enter politics after Manchin invited him to the State of the Union address. But I couldn’t find any evidence that Manchin, who was also running for re-election at the time, ever sent Ojeda a message of support or appeared with him at a campaign event.
While the Democrats didn’t exactly put up their best effort to put the Republican incumbents to the test in the House contests in 2020, Manchin appears to have chosen not to campaign for them. I couldn’t discover any campaign advertisements featuring him.
According to the Federal Election Commission, Manchin’s campaign made its final gift to the West Virginia Democratic Party in 2018. I inquired at Manchin’s office whether I had missed any 2020 Democratic candidate campaign commercials. I also inquired if the Democrat who ends up on the ballot in the general election for the second congressional district seat will receive the same level of support as McKinley.
Manchin’s office had not yet responded as of Monday afternoon, and I will update this piece if he does. Do I believe that this McKinley ad is a hint that Manchin is finally getting ready to switch parties, as many have predicted over the years? No. I believe it demonstrates that Manchin considers his personal political survival to be separate from the party’s prospects nationwide at this time. And it is precisely what he desires.