West Virginian a wild card for Democrats

As a candidate for the U.S. Senate, popular West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin promised to be his own man and to bring
As a candidate for the U.S. Senate, popular West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin promised to be his own man and to bring "West Virginia common sense" to Washington. (Jeff Gentner)
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By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010

IN CHARLESTON, W.VA. Democrats caught a break this week when Joe Manchin's win allowed them to hold the West Virginia Senate seat, but the victory came at a certain cost.

Manchin, a popular governor, has made clear that in Washington, he will be his own man. In one television ad, he loaded a rifle, peered through the scope and fired a round into a copy of his party's cap-and-trade energy bill. "I just respectfully disagree with this administration and our president," Manchin said this week, describing his position on the bill, which many in West Virginia fear would harm the coal industry.

He is also open to working with Republicans to "fix" - though not repeal - the health-care overhaul by scaling back its coverage mandates.

"I think they all agree that that should be taken out, Democrats and Republicans," he said Wednesday at a news conference. "That might be the first compromise you have to try and fix it."

Manchin promised to bring "West Virginia common sense" to Washington - in other words, to be a Democrat who supports gun rights, unions and businesses while opposing the expansion of abortion rights and being wary of gay marriage and government overreach.

That mix of positions will probably pose challenges to a narrowed Democratic Senate majority. Manchin also signaled that he is eager to broker deals with anyone with whom he finds common cause. "I don't need hard-core Democrats and Republicans. I don't need labor and business continuing to squabble and fight," he said. ". . . I'm going to say: 'Be an American. Just put your country first.' "

"Country First" happens to be a slogan Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used during his 2008 presidential campaign. McCain lost the White House, but he won West Virginia by about 13 points. Manchin often repeated the line on the campaign trail.

"Quite clearly, he didn't run as a Republican or Democrat. He ran as Joe Manchin of the Manchin Party," said Mark Ferrell, a veteran Democratic political consultant. "He went out on the stump and professed anger with both parties and declined opportunities to identify himself with either party."

Manchin, chairman of the National Governors Association, is likely to remain sensitive to the burden federal legislation places on state governments, said Steven Adams, editor of the West Virginia Watchdog political Web site.

"When he first supported the health-care reform bill . . . he did it with the caveat that he wished that the states had been more consulted," Adams said. "He'd probably be pretty receptive to making sure that federal policies were things that the states would be able to handle."

Manchin hopes to complete the remaining two years of the late Robert C. Byrd's Senate term and then win two more terms of his own. No matter how long he serves in Washington, he vowed to vote in the interest of West Virginia - despite the almost $4 million that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent to help him win.

"If there's a different direction that someone else wants me to go in because it's their agenda and not West Virginia's agenda, I won't do it," Manchin said.

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