The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Red state Democrats face down progressives who want primary challenges

Sen. Joe Manchin III departs the Senate chamber on Feb. 3. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

On Monday afternoon, Axios’s Jonathan Swan reported that Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) had held an “hour-long off-the-record” session with the editorial team of Breitbart News. A few hours later, the new progressive PAC WeWillReplaceYou, which threatens primary challenges to Democrats who go against the base’s desires, said this was cause for a demotion.

“Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer should remove Manchin from his leadership position immediately,” WeWillReplaceYou co-founder Yong Jung Cho said in a statement. “It should go without saying that no Democrat — much less a leader of the Democratic Party in the U.S. Senate — should be creating an ally of that toxic cesspool of far-right hatred and conspiracy theory.”

A spokesman for Schumer declined to comment on the statement, but the removal of Manchin from his new role in the 10-member party leadership seems unlikely. Arousing the anger of progressive groups may actually be a strategy for Manchin and the four other Democrats who find themselves up for reelection in reliably Republican states next year. (Five more Democrats face reelection in states that voted for Donald Trump after twice voting for Barack Obama.)

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As the Associated Press noted last week, red state Democrats and many Republicans have been avoiding public town hall meetings after Republican lawmakers faced strong and loud criticism from their constituents during such events recently. The lawmakers don’t want their opponents to take advantage of viral moments or showcases to criticize their votes.

Two weeks ago, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) suggested to a home state radio host that she may face a primary challenge, emphasizing that if she did it would be because she was trying to make compromises in Washington.

“I may have a primary [challenge] because there is in our party now some of the same kind of enthusiasm at the base that the Republican Party had with the tea party,” McCaskill said. “Many of those people are very impatient with me because they don’t think I’m pure. For example, they think I should be voting against all of Trump’s nominees, and, of course, I’m judging each nominee on its own merit.”

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McCaskill was acknowledging reality. Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2016 Democratic primary campaign have won leadership roles in Missouri’s Democratic Party, and as the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday, some progressive Democrats are trying to recruit a “populist” into the 2018 primary.

But Manchin has taken a harder line with progressive activists, accusing them of demanding a town hall just to cause a scene. During a call with constituent activists such as Carey Jo Grace of the Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, who was filming and uploading to Facebook, Manchin at first tried to find areas of agreement with protesters. He called Republicans’ refusal to hold a hearing on Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland horrible.

But he blew up when an activist criticized his vote for new Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt.

“I believe basically what Barack Obama did to our state was a crime,” said Manchin, referring to the Obama administration’s environmental regulations. “You’re not going to change me on that.”

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When the protesters pressed on, Manchin gave them a choice. “You want me to stand in front of you and have people scream,” he said. “What you ought to do is vote me out. Vote me out! I’m not changing.”

“Is that a threat or an invitation?” asked one activist.

“It’s an invitation. You ought to,” said Manchin. “We’re on different pages … this is the problem in Washington. Everybody wants to fight continuously without finding a way forward. Yelling doesn’t bother me. I think we can all make a fool out of ourselves if we want to.”

Manchin asked one activist if he’d backed Sanders for president in 2016. When the activist said that he had supported the Vermont independent — in a Democratic primary that Sanders won solidly — Manchin responded that Sanders “isn’t even a Democrat.”

The West Virginia Democratic Party, which was dominant in the state until 2014, has few obvious challengers to Manchin. Republicans have floated the names of at least two candidates, state Attorney General Patrick Morrissey and Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.).