Entering the 2018 midterms, pundits identified Senator Joe Manchin as one of the most endangered incumbents. Indeed, President Donald Trump steamrolled to victory in West Virginia in 2016, defeating Secretary Hillary Clinton by forty-two percentage points. Although Manchin himself had triumphed decisively in his most recent election, the Mountain State appeared to have lurched irrevocably into the arms of conservatives. Nevertheless, Manchin has maintained a persistent lead over his challenger, Attorney General Patrick Morrissey. If Manchin prevails clearly on Tuesday, it will be in stark contrast to his fellow red-state Democrats; Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) have encountered much more serious threats despite similar levels of Republican attention and the benefits of a Democratic-leaning climate. Two main factors, the noxious atmosphere surrounding the Republican primary and the senator’s own voting record, have resulted in to Manchin’s electoral security.
The state was not always as conservative as it appears today, however. Democrats had dominated the state since the Great Depression, as unions flocked to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal plan. However, the state flipped red in the 1972 Presidential Election following President Richard Nixon’s legislation to ameliorate mine conditions for coal laborers. President Ronald Reagan and President Bill Clinton would each go on to claim the region, a sign of its volatility. Indeed, while Florida attracted most of the national media’s attention, President George W. Bush campaigned extensively in Charleston and subsequently proceeded to capture the Electoral College only by the state’s five votes. Since 2000, however, West Virginia has transitioned further and further to the right. Such is the political climate that Governor Jim Justice switched parties from Democrat to Republican in 2017, leaving Manchin as the only statewide elected Democrat aside from treasurer John Perdue. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Manchin’s Republican colleague and a Duke graduate, won over 60% of the electoral in 2014. Manchin is being pressured from both sides. Republicans (who make up an increasing share of the electorate) shame him for being too liberal, while Democrats complain his voting record is too conservative in order to appease Republicans.
Part of Manchin’s success derives from the three-way Republican primary competition between Morrissey, State Supreme Court Justice Evan Jenkins, and business magnate Don Blankenship. While all three candidates pledged fealty to Trump, their disparate demeanors differentiated them. Blankenship, who served a year in prison for his negligence in the explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine, which killed twenty-nine of the thirty-one workers and was reportedly felt up to seven miles away, could not behave appropriately on the campaign trail. He referred to Senator Mitch McConnell, whose Kentucky Republican constituency mirrors West Virginia’s, as “Cocaine Mitch,” ostensibly a dig on the Senate majority leader’s lack of action on illegal immigration. Even more grotesquely, Blankenship called Secretary Elaine Chao, who leads the Department of Transportation, emigrated from China as a young girl, and is married to McConnell, a “China person” and implied that her ethnicity impinged upon American sovereignty. Clearly, Blankenship would have provided Manchin with a plethora of material with which to imperil his chances, and Republican leadership agreed; thus, President Trump tweeted for primary voters to opt for either Jenkins or Morrissey. Thankfully for Trump, Blankenship placed in a distant third, yet the candidate had already afflicted enough damage. Blankenship’s outlandish comments had soiled the Republican brand in West Virginia for this cycle. Moreover, Jenkins and Morrissey engaged in heated debate between themselves, with each vying to be viewed as the more loyal patriot to the president’s agenda. Jenkins depicted Morrissey as a Washington-entrenched lobbyist who would beget further corruption on Capitol Hill, a staggering hit within a state where “Drain the Swamp” chants filled arenas during Trump’s rise. Voters are not quick to forget such accusations and have held them against Morrissey through Election Day.
More importantly, Manchin’s voting record demonstrates a man seeking unity and refusing to kowtow to blue-state liberals’ policy initiatives. After all, what may ignite the base in Boston or San Francisco, such as a cap-and-trade system on carbon or single-payer healthcare, would never fly in Morganstown. Therefore, Manchin has acted much more moderately. With his background as a two-term governor, Manchin has experience in working with the opposition and crossing the partisan divide. For instance, he served as the chairman on the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, which points to his willingness to accommodate and hear opposing views. Manchin has brought this method of thinking into the Senate; as the only Democrat to vote for Justice Kavanaugh, he drew consternation across his party and from the national media, yet he understood West Virginians’ stance on the issue. Still, Manchin has stood his ground, most notably on the Republican tax plan. By presenting himself not in automatic opposition to nor in sycophantic support for the president but as someone who wants what’s best for his state, Manchin has presented himself as an alternative maverick to Washington’s dysfunctionality. Hence, he is expected to win on Tuesday.