A Hard Man in a Hard Time: Joe Manchin and the Fight for West Virginia

First of all, as a Democrat, this needs to be said: to Hell with Joe Manchin. He has long been a member of the party in name only, and is to put it charitably, a toady for the coal industry and the NRA. As West Virginia has shifted even further to the right, Manchin has recently distinguished himself by voting for most of President Trump’s cabinet, supporting U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and declining to weigh in on the DREAM Act. If these stances weren’t enough, there is a lingering cloud of nepotism and avarice: his daughter, Heather Bresch, was both the recipient of a ill-gotten M.B.A from West Virginia University while her father was the governor and the C.E.O. behind the 400% price hike on the epipen.[1]

Despite this chicanery and water carrying for our Republican overlords, Manchin might have sealed his fate by voting against the “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act, which most voting West Virginians would recognize as Obamacare. When confronted via mail by Patrick Morrisey, a prospective opponent, and asked “to put West Virginia’s interests and values first and resign immediately from Sen. Chuck Schumer’s leadership team,” Manchin responded very tellingly: he said he did not “give a shit” if he was elected in 2018.

The Senator went on to clarify the statement, reiterating with the verve of a man being pushed to the edge of his ability to cope: “If they think because I’m up for election, that I can be wrangled into voting for shit that I don’t like and can’t explain, they’re all crazy.”[2] Though Manchin has positioned himself as individualist in the Senate, these seem to be the words of a man who is tired of being assaulted from all sides, and sees the writing on the wall: regardless of anything that he does, West Virginia is going Republican in 2018.

Republicans, flush with Trump’s overwhelming victory in the state and the reconversion of Governor Jim Justice, have not been shy about declaring their intentions to contest the seat. Though other candidates might emerge, as shooting fish in a barrel seems to be a pretty popular pastime, the two main contenders thus far are Representative Evan Jenkins and the aforementioned Morrisey.[3] Both candidates have released platforms loaded with exactly what West Virginian voters apparently want to hear: more coal, less abortions, and a healthy respect for the second amendment.

In addition, both Jenkins and Morrisey express admiration for and willingness to work with President Trump. Jenkins’s website touts his vote to support a border wall and a resurgence in fossil fuels, though the figures omit any information related to coal. He also doubles down for Trump by touting the arrest of three illegal immigrants in Ohio County. The post does not indicate whether the men committed any other crimes and were therefore “bad hombres,” or simply undocumented workers. Morrisey prefers to go negative with his allegiance, and focus on President Trump’s fixation with his predecessor. Morrisey’s website mentions Obama in four separate places, bringing him in close alignment with the current administration.[4]

What you find when you look up “underachieving son” at Shutterstock

Though Morrisey touts himself as a lifelong Republican, he is most certainly not a lifelong West Virginian nor a Trumpian political outsider. He was born in New York City and even ran for the House of Representatives in New Jersey in 2000. Previous to that unsuccessful bid, he practiced law at Arent Fox, a D.C. firm that houses a significant lobbying business. He also worked as chief health counsel during George W. Bush’s second term and, before defeating incumbent Attorney General Darrell McGraw in 2012, held a partnership in another large firm, King and Spalding.

He expresses a need to “drain the swamp” in his announcement video, but Morrisey, who is also married to a D.C. lobbyist, seems instead to be a lifelong political operator who has finally found an open door.[5] Given their similar political agendas, Representative Jenkins will seek to make hay out of Morrisey’s Washington connections and short tenure in the state, but an examination of his own career indicates that he is also largely a political animal:

[Jenkins] initially later changed to Republican, then switched to the Democratic Party in 1993 when he decided to seek a Cabell-Wayne County seat in the House of Delegates. Successful in that bid for office, he went on to serve three terms in the House. In 2002, he was elected to the State Senate, serving three terms. While still in the State Senate, Jenkins switched his party affiliation from Democratic back to Republican on July 31, 2013, and announced his run for West Virginia’s Third Congressional District on the same day.[6]

There are no rules about switching party affiliations, but Jenkins’s repeated willingness to make an advantageous change, combined with the liberal references to Trump—the current if curdling political flavor of the moment—shows a candidate who follows not an ideology or even the singular trend happening in his state; rather he will be and do whatever it takes to win the next election. Jenkins, in his current guise as an archconservative, seems only too willing to fall in line with whatever Republicans at large are thinking, as long as he can keep his seat at the table. Even conceding that West Virginia is now a state that will reliably vote Republican, certainly the party can do better than to offer up a pair of eager snake oil merchants.

In addition to the generally poor quality of the declared candidates, the election of a second Republican senator would jeopardize what little relevance West Virginia still maintains in the Senate. Jenkins or Morrisey paired with Shelly Moore Capito will essentially create an assured conservative voting bloc. Senator Moore Capito’s recent vote for the repeal of the Affordable Healthcare Act, despite strongly stating her opposition[7] and the potentially disastrous consequences for  the state[8] indicates a party-first mentality that will likely be doubled with an amenable junior senator.

Indeed, regardless of the lip service given to a coal subsidy[9] or recent concern about the opioid epidemic[10], it is hard to fathom that the Republican Party’s national agenda would address the unique needs of West Virginia’s constituency. If the state’s votes are essentially in the bag, there is really not a reason to try.

WV Senator and neighborhood mom who won’t buy your elementary school fundraising wrapping paper, Shelley Moore Capito

This brings us back to Manchin, the most misunderstood man in the Senate. Republicans tout him as an Obama Democrat, mindlessly voting for big government programs to the detriment of hard working billionaires and corporations everywhere. His own party calls him a turncoat, shamefully bowing to special interest groups to appease a constituency that doesn’t know what is truly good for it.

Manchin’s offenses have reached the degree that Democrats in the state have already started rumblings of ousting him in the primary. Though his challenger, Paula Jean Swearengin is just the sort of progressive that a segment of West Virginian Democrats have hungered for, she is associated with the Brand New Congress movement, a collection of nice, earnest Bernie Sanders supporters who will be sandblasted into nonexistence by the existing power structures of both parties.

And even if West Virginia voters could be swayed by the progressive promise of better healthcare and education, they will quickly scatter upon realizing that safe access to abortions and a call to reform police practices—inevitably linked with the Black Lives Matter movement and gun control—are also part of the platform. To put it simply, a true Democratic candidate may be unelectable in the state; unions have been busted, and a great many liberal voters have left West Virginia to find a more welcoming and economically vibrant place to live.[11] There might not be a way that a liberal Democrat, no matter who he or she is, can be elected.

That leaves Joe Manchin to hold the line. He will not win many fans in the liberal wing of the party, and actually might behave more like a Republican.  However, when the Grand Old Party was ready to take a “see what happens” approach to the healthcare of millions of citizens, the most vulnerable Americans needed every vote in the room. On that night, Joe Manchin, despite his faults, was exactly what West Virginia  and the country required: a candidate willing to look past party politics and make the hard, hopefully right decision for his constituents. This was not the vote of a company man or a craven operator; it was the vote of a legislator representing his constituency. The best hope for the people of West Virginia might be the one man willing to say he doesn’t give a shit about them.

R. Mike Burr is a native West Virginian and public school teacher who resides happily with his wife, two children, and two dogs in Atlanta. His work has appeared previously in Prefix magazine and other publications.


[1]Wieczner, Jen. “Mylan CEO’s ‘Heather Bresch Situation’: Before EpiPen, the MBA Scandal.” Mylan CEO’s ‘Heather Bresch Situation’: Before EpiPen, the MBA Scandal | Fortune.com. August 26, 2016. Accessed August 13, 2017. http://fortune.com/2016/08/26/epipen-mylan-ceo-interview-heather-bresch-mba/.

[2] Dickerson, Chris. “Manchin says he ‘doesn’t give a sh-t’ about Morrisey’s demand.” West Virginia Record. August 07, 2017. Accessed August 14, 2017. http://wvrecord.com/stories/511174813-manchin-says-he-doesn-t-give-a-sh-t-about-morrisey-s-demand.

[3] Another candidate, laid off coal miner Bo Copley, has tried to parlay his confrontation with Hillary Clinton into a run for senate, but he does not seem to have infrastructure to mount a serious campaign.

[4] “U.S. Senate.” Patrick Morrisey. Accessed August 13, 2017. https://patrickmorrisey.com/.

[5] To those who would bring up Jay Rockefeller, another New Yorker who won a senate seat in West Virginia, I would posit that there is a slight difference between Rockefeller, who served in the House of Delegates, was the secretary of state, and a two-term governor over two decades, and candidates like Mr. Morrisey and Representative Alex Mooney, who cross the state line primarily to run for national office.

[6] Casto, James E. “| Back to e-WV The West Virginia Encyclopedia.” E-WV | Evan Jenkins. Accessed August 22, 2017. https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/print/Article/2431.

[7] “Shelley Moore Capito: I Didn’t Come to D.C. to Hurt People.” Time. July 18, 2017. Accessed August 14, 2017. http://time.com/4863692/shelley-moore-capito-obamacare-repeal-opposition-health-care/.

[8] Holdren, Wendy. “West Virginia to be second most affected state with ACA repeal.” WVAHC West Virginia to be second most affected state with ACA repeal Comments. January 26, 2017. Accessed August 17, 2017. http://wvahc.org/west-virginia-to-be-second-most-affected-state-with-aca-repeal/.

[9] Ingraham, Christopher. “Analysis | West Virginia governor wants to sell Trump on a $4.5 billion coal bailout by calling it a.” The Washington Post. August 10, 2017. Accessed August 13, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/08/10/wv-governor-wants-to-sell-trump-on-a-4-5-billion-coal-bailout-by-calling-it-a-homeland-security-initiative/?utm_term=.32f6ae36b8a7.

[10] Naylor, Brian, and Tamara Keith. “Trump Says He Intends To Declare Opioid Crisis National Emergency.” NPR. August 10, 2017. Accessed August 14, 2017. http://www.npr.org/2017/08/10/542669730/trump-says-he-intends-to-declare-opioid-crisis-national-emergency.

[11] The level of vitriol directed toward President Obama on billboards in southern West Virginia is surpassed only by the smug business signage, visible from state highways, saying “I made this.” Republicans in the legislature have persisted in putting forward “religious freedom” bills that, while currently tabled, indicate what is keeping conservatives up at night.