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The Democrat Who Hugged the President

Trump and Sen. Joe Manchin share an interlocked fate

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III has embraced the idea of working with President Donald Trump, a smart strategy given the Mountain State’s strong support for Trump in last year’s election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III has embraced the idea of working with President Donald Trump, a smart strategy given the Mountain State’s strong support for Trump in last year’s election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Most Democrats fled after President Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress last week. But Sen. Joe Manchin III instead approached him — and leaned in for a hug.

The gesture only lasted a few seconds. But it speaks volumes about the symbiotic relationship that has emerged between the West Virginia Democrat and the Republican president in recent months.

As the Democratic Party solidifies its resistance to Trump, Manchin has taken the opposite tack. He’s voted for 14 of Trump’s Cabinet nominees — more than any other Senate Democrat. He exchanged personal cell phone numbers with the president. And he recently spent an hour in his office with the editorial team of the far-right Breitbart News — the former employer of several in Trump’s inner circle.

The relationship could help both men. With a slim Republican majority of 52 in the Senate, Trump will need swing votes to get a Supreme Court nominee confirmed or to advance legislation past a filibuster, both of which require 60 votes. And with Trump overwhelmingly popular in West Virginia — where Manchin is up for re-election in 2018 — Manchin may need to work with the president in order to survive politically.

“Both of them want to get stuff done, and both of them know that the only way for them to get it done in Washington is with the help of each other,” said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster who has worked with Manchin for over a decade.

Manchin said nothing has changed: He has long crafted an image as a moderate, and one of the few senators who can work with the other side, regardless of who is in the White House.  

“I’m in the same spot I’ve been all my life,” he said during a recent interview in his office. “The politics of my state have changed, that’s definite. But I’ve always been kind of my own brand.”

Manchin had just finished a meeting with Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy about how to improve the health care marketplace. He is against repealing the 2010 health care law, he said. But the meeting made him the first in his party to sit down with a Republican to discuss, as he termed it, “a pathway forward.”

Such gestures had earned him the ire of liberal groups. Last week, activists delivered a petition with 225,000 signatures to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s office, demanding he remove Manchin from the Senate leadership team and calling the Mountain State lawmaker a “phony Democrat” and a “Trump apologist.”

But Manchin has shown little sign of interest in bending to the will of his party’s left flank. During the interview, he interrupted a point he was trying to make about the party being big enough to accept everyone across the political spectrum to ask an aide about the proper terminology.

“Is a progressive more than a liberal or a liberal more than a progressive?” he said. “I really don’t know.”

Almost heaven for Trump

Manchin is one of 10 Democratic senators from states that voted for Trump last fall who are up for re-election next year. But none of those states went as solidly for Trump as West Virginia. Trump carried nearly 69 percent of the vote there, continuing a dramatic shift to the right that started about a decade ago.

Those results immediately upped Manchin’s currency in his party as it searches for a way to maintain its foothold in the Senate and win back the voters it lost to Trump. Schumer gave Manchin a position in Senate leadership, and Democrats traveled to West Virginia in January, where Manchin moderated a closed-to-the-press panel of West Virginia voters who had voted for Trump.

Manchin has survived in the state by highlighting his personal breaks with his party. As the state’s governor, he sued the Obama administration over environmental policy. He is famous for a campaign commercial during his first run for the Senate in 2010 that featured him shooting a rifle at a copy of Obama’s favored “cap-and-trade” legislation. And he has split with his party more than any other Democrat in the Senate, according to CQ Roll Call analyses of lawmakers’ votes in the 113th Congress.

Manchin’s friends say his record shows a willingness to reach across the aisle to get things done. Whereas most in Congress rarely socialize across party lines, Manchin was famous for inviting senators from opposing parties to share six-packs of Miller High Life on a houseboat he keeps in the D.C. area.

“The president is right to reach out to Joe, because no one knows how to socialize and schmooze the Senate better than Joe,” said Mark Kirk, a former Republican senator from Illinois. Kirk worked with Manchin on unsuccessful legislation to expand background checks on firearm purchases, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut — a bipartisan deal that was one of Manchin’s signature accomplishments in the Senate.

Kirk, a moderate Republican, said he and Manchin tried to start a tradition of monthly bipartisan lunches in the Senate. But so few of their colleagues took them up on it that Manchin and Kirk usually dined alone in the Senate’s stately Styles Bridges room, with a bunch of empty place settings.

Just an average Joe

Democrats in West Virginia say Manchin’s contrarianism is not an act.

“His profile matches very well to the average West Virginia voter,” said Curtis Wilkerson, a Democratic strategist. “He’s pro-coal, pro-worker, pro-access to a living-wage job. The things that West Virginians like, he likes.”

Nathan Daschle, who was the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association while Manchin was the chairman, made a similar point.

Joe Manchin can represent West Virginia in any capacity he wants for the rest of his life,” he said. “His willingness and his comfort with bucking party convention and doing what’s right for his state is entirely why he is so popular back home.”

Manchin grew up in a coal-mining town, where his grandparents owned the local grocery store.

He has been winning elections in the state for decades. He started as a representative in the House of Delegates, and later as a state senator and West Virginia secretary of state. Manchin won two terms as governor before winning his Senate seat, after the death of the legendary Robert C. Byrd.

“He’s a back-slapping, good ol’ Joe who will speak to anybody like he has known them his entire life,” said former West Virginia Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, a centrist Democrat. “He appears to have an excellent relationship with Donald Trump. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Democrats point out that not every statewide office in West Virginia went to a Republican last fall. The state’s newly elected governor, Jim Justice, for one, is a billionaire businessman who has also touted his family’s connection to Trump.

A man without a party?

Republicans, though, say Manchin faces insurmountable odds.

“He’s trying to thread a needle that doesn’t exist,” said Conrad Lucas, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party. “In West Virginia, he is essentially a man without a party, and a man without a state.”

One Republican pollster said that Manchin’s favorability ratings among West Virginia voters have slipped to 56 percent from peaks in the mid-60s. Polls also show growing unfavorable ratings among registered Democrats, which is a problem because the number of registered Democrats in the state is declining, the pollster said. The pollster spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release polling data publicly.

“He’s got problems on every side of him right now from a sheer political standpoint,” the pollster said. Given those numbers, he said, it is no wonder Manchin has affixed his star to Trump’s. “It’s almost a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario, and he’s got to pick his poison.”

Republicans say Manchin has never faced strong challengers, but this year could be different. Potential challengers include Rep. Evan Jenkins, a Republican from the state’s 3rd District and the state’s Republican attorney general, Patrick Morrisey.  

Ironically, Manchin’s fate may be tied to Trump’s ability to follow through on his promise to bring coal-mining jobs back to the state, said Robert Rupp, a professor of history and political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College. 

“Manchin is in a position to take credit for that,” Rupp said. “And to talk about ‘My friend, Trump.’”

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