BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — Among the millions of wavering voters in the presidential race, the most prominent might be West Virginia’s Joe Manchin — a U.S. senator, a candidate for reelection and a lifelong Democrat who, less than two weeks out, is undecided about whether to support Barack Obama again.
“I don’t feel compelled as I did in 2008,” he says.
Manchin isn’t alone among West Virginia Democrats attempting to separate themselves from the president. The governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, and a prominent congressman, Nick J. Rahall II — both facing reelection challenges — have also declined to publicly endorse Obama.
But the spurning of the president by the 65-year-old Manchin, a popular former governor and nowadays his state’s chief political luminary, stands out — in part because of Manchin’s intense criticism of the man whom he regularly and affectionately called “Barack” during the 2008 campaign. A federal “war on coal” has harmed West Virginia and united Democratic dissenters against the Obama administration, Manchin declared in an interview last week, observing of the president’s electoral fate: “I think he knows he’s not going to do well in our state. . . . And you know what? It’s personal. When people lose their jobs, they look at you and ask, ‘So, what am I to do?’ And they blame him.”
Four years ago, before the blaming started, Manchin praised Obama as a worthy partner for coal states, declaring in a CNBC interview, “That’s why it’s so imperative that Barack becomes the next president.” Now Manchin talks about how the Obama administration doesn’t reach out to him for discussions on coal issues, and how the president has never called him.
Manchin’s supporters point out that elective politics is chiefly about personal survival, with loyalty to another politician always a fluid and fragile thing. Obama, who is thought to be trailing Republican Mitt Romney by more than 20 percentage points in West Virginia, is about as popular here as wind turbines. In 2008, John McCain beat him by 13 points in the state. During this year’s West Virginia Democratic primary, a Texas prison inmate received about 41 percent against Obama in a protest vote, with Manchin carefully committing to no one. West Virginia Democratic leaders urging him to support Obama have had their entreaties rebuffed.
Meanwhile, Manchin is seeking to tweak a bit of history. When reminded that he endorsed Obama in 2008 after the eventual president secured the Democratic nomination, he is quick to disagree and clarify, disliking the word “endorsed.” “Well, supported him,” he says.
Manchin isn’t the first senator to consider not supporting his party’s nominee. In 2004, for instance, then-Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.) announced that he wasn’t planning to vote for President George W. Bush, while Zell Miller (Ga.) did not vote for fellow senator John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic presidential nominee.
In West Virginia, Manchin has a comfortable lead in his race against Republican John Raese. Raese lost to Manchin by about 10 points in a 2010 special election, in which the Democrat captured the seat previously held by the state’s late legend Robert C. Byrd. Manchin, who had trailed through much of the campaign, saw his standing soar after running a TV ad in which he aimed a rifle and viewers saw a bullet slicing through a mock-up of an Obama-favored cap-and-trade bill to regulate carbon emissions.
His track record has reflected his streaks of independence from the administration and his party, as well as his mercurial nature, all of it serving to safeguard his maverick image in West Virginia. After indicating support in early 2010 for the Affordable Care Act, which won passage before he entered the Senate, Manchin’s perspective, in line with the state’s burgeoning anti-Obama sentiment, swiftly evolved to the point where he charged that the law was “overreaching” and in need of reform.
But all other issues here pale next to the question of which candidates will best protect the coal industry. Raese — who has seized on the unpopularity of Obama here and several regulations from the administration’s Environmental Protection Agency that affect the state’s coal industry — speaks at every opportunity about the purported link between Manchin and the president. He hopes to benefit from anti-Obama TV ads running across the state that feature a 2008 recording of then-candidate Obama saying, “If somebody wants to build a coal power plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them.”
The dispute stretches beyond West Virginia. Coal has emerged as a fierce issue in parts of Ohio and Virginia, two battleground states with communities that are historically reliant on the industry, as well as in Pennsylvania, a state the Romney campaign hopes to keep in play by winning over disgruntled coal workers.
At a rally in Moon Township, Pa., last weekend, Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan repeated that the Obama administration has waged a “war on coal,” asserting that more than 100 coal plants had been scheduled to close, at a cost of thousands of jobs.
Data from the government and the coal industry suggest a complicated picture. Although there are more coal jobs now than when Obama took office, overall coal production has fallen slightly, according to industry statistics. Over the past year, a decline in demand for coal has led to layoffs in parts of Appalachia. In West Virginia, 1,300 coal jobs were lost during the past quarter, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Although some administration critics bitterly cite EPA regulations that restrict certain kinds of mining operations and increase operational costs, many industry analysts observe that coal’s biggest problem at the moment is the competitive presence of natural gas, which has become a cheaper and increasingly attractive alternative. Technological advances have led some coal-fired plants to switch to natural gas.
In West Virginia, what matters most is whether a candidate can be trusted to fight vigilantly on behalf of coal. Raese argues that Manchin’s old alliance with Obama ought to be viewed as disqualifying.
“He’s on the wrong team,” Raese said of Manchin, adding: “And it’s puzzling and disturbing to many West Virginians that he won’t even say who he’s voting for. I’m for Governor Romney. Why won’t Joe tell us whom he supports? . . . What does it mean?”
Asked those same questions, the Obama campaign declined to comment about the meaning and impact of Manchin’s decision not to endorse the president. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee did not respond to requests for comment.
Although some polls place his advantage over Raese at about 30 points, Manchin is taking no chances, and is careful at nearly every stop to distinguish himself from Obama and what he calls “Washington Democrats.” Last week, at a Chamber of Commerce “Meet the Candidates” breakfast in the southern West Virginia city of Beckley, Manchin told his audience that Washington is “discounting coal.” Later that day, he repeated his differences with the Obama administration during an address before a group of veterans in Bluefield. “I respectfully disagree with the president on the lack of an energy policy,” he said, before skewering EPA regulations and mocking what he considers the anti-coal emphasis of environmentalists. He elicited chuckles when he declared, “I found out that common sense is not too common in Washington.”
Among the veterans listening to him was 75-year-old Al Hancock, the lone African American in the room, reflective of a state whose population is only about 3 percent black. Hancock regards the senator as a family friend, appreciative of the advice and encouragement that Manchin has given over many years to Hancock’s son, Phil, a Washington lawyer for Amtrak. But Hancock’s gratitude has left him no less disappointed with Manchin’s unwillingness to support Obama. “I’m on the president’s side,” Hancock said after the senator’s remarks. “Democrats should stick together.”
Hancock does sympathize with the political pressures on his friend. “People here hate President Obama, probably partially because of the way they see him on coal,” he said. “If Joe had come out for President Obama, a lot of people in West Virginia would have held it against him, even though I still think Joe would win big. But even popular [candidates] aren’t taking chances when it comes to the president.”
Listening to Hancock, 71-year-old Pete Sternloff, a fellow Vietnam veteran and a Bluefield official, nodded. “Obama will be lucky to get within 30 points of Romney here, which helps me understand why Manchin isn’t [supporting] him,” said Sternloff, a staunch Obama supporter who has given up hope that the state’s other uncommitted Democratic candidates will embrace the president in the campaign’s final days. “Their [Republican] opponents would just love for them to endorse; it’d give them an issue.”
Still, questions about Manchin’s elusiveness persist. “When have you ever heard of a senator not saying if he’s going to vote for a president?” Raese demanded. The doubts about Obama among local candidates transcend class and race in West Virginia, where virtually everyone knows someone involved in the coal industry. Nearly every political discussion begins and ends with a reference to the loss of coal jobs in the state during the president’s term.
The office-seekers distancing themselves from Obama include Tony O. Martin, an African American candidate running in Beckley as an independent for the West Virginia House of Delegates. “I’m up in the air about the [presidential] election,” says Martin, a Manchin supporter who echoes many of the senator’s concerns with Obama. “The ramifications of the administration’s EPA on costs and coal jobs still have me concerned. Probably leaning a little toward the president, but still up in the air.”
Manchin, who earlier in the campaign indicated that he was considering both Romney and Obama, now says he won’t vote for the Republican. But the suggestion that this leaves only Obama triggers a flurry of additional qualifiers from him. He swiftly adds that he is “having a hard time” envisioning that he might vote for the president.
“When I say, ‘I’m having a hard time,’ ” he explains, “I gotta make my decision just like the American people, okay? . . . And it’s hard right now [to support Obama] with where the country is and with where he’s come from the last four years.”
If the president gets trounced in coal states, Manchin thinks his old ally will have only himself to blame. “Basically, there’s an awful lot of fault there for the overreaching of a government agency which is working against you, not with you,” he says, referring to the EPA. “When you don’t feel the government is your partner, but more your adversary and enemy . . . you got a problem.”
So he won’t be voting for Obama?
“I’m having a hard time,” he repeats enigmatically.
This hangs there. He smiles. “With all respect, it is what it is.”