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Opinion Progressives, please back off Manchin. You’re only helping him with my fellow West Virginians.

A Greenpeace protester at the U.S. Capitol depicts Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) as a puppeteer manipulating Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and President Biden on Oct. 20. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg News)

Madalin Sammons is a Democratic consultant and lifelong West Virginian.

It was late summer in 2018, and I was standing on a mountaintop in rural West Virginia filming an ad for Richard Ojeda, a Democrat in a competitive midterm House race. My phone rang, and I looked at the screen to see who it was. I was surprised to read “Bernie Sanders.”

He wanted to endorse and publicly support our campaign.

Over the next few weeks, there were many discussions (and some polling) about whether my boss should accept a generous offer from Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.) to host a rally for him. Sanders said he was eager to back Ojeda, but also understood that a public embrace from the self-avowed democratic socialist could be counterproductive in a state that was shifting ever redder. Ultimately, we thanked the senator and declined his offer.

I wish Sanders had similarly stayed away from West Virginia this month instead of writing an op-ed for the state’s biggest newspaper, calling out Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) for opposing the size and scope of the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better legislation.

No matter how well the Ojeda team was aligned with Sanders on matters such as Medicare-for-all and free college tuition, we recognized that West Virginia is a conservative state and support from someone so firmly in the progressive camp would ultimately damage our prospects of victory. (In the end, we lost anyway.) Every Democratic elected official or candidate in West Virginia must tread cautiously, avoiding any association with far-left politics.

Sanders and Manchin recently argued vehemently behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, according to news reports. That’s as it should be when Democratic lawmakers are trying to hash out a spending compromise. But Sanders’s plunge into West Virginia was a blunder.

I see progressive Democrats constantly assailing Manchin, and I have to wonder: Is this helping us pass the bill, even a modified version of it, or is the deluge of scornful one-liners on MSNBC and snarky tweets actually making success less likely?

As a proud Democrat and someone who considers herself a progressive, I support President Biden’s Build Back Better package and would love nothing more than to see Manchin, my fellow West Virginian, vote for it. But I also know and understand what it means to live and work in a deep-red state.

Making Manchin a punching bag for liberals is only going to endear him to West Virginians, including plenty of Democrats. It proves his point to the people who elected him, vindicating a message he has carried from the coalfields to the panhandle — that he is a “West Virginia Democrat” and will not cave in to the progressive Democrats in Congress, no matter how much pressure they apply. Tearing him down nationally has the ironic effect of building him up locally.

When progressives put a target on Manchin’s back, they put more votes for him in the ballot box come reelection. They give him an even better reason not to cede ground on a bill so strongly supported by progressive Democrats and a certain democratic socialist.

If the goal in negotiating with Manchin is to coax him into accepting as much of the original Build Back Better package as possible, why try so hard to alienate him?

Build Back Better is a historic bill that would benefit the people of West Virginia: universal pre-K, expanded Medicare and Medicaid, lower prescription drug costs, extending the child tax credit, paid family leave and much more.

But just like in 2018, it isn’t the message that puts off West Virginians; it’s the messenger. I understand the temptation to burn it down. Our decision in the Ojeda campaign to decline the Sanders offer wasn’t an easy one, but we knew that ultimately the election wouldn’t be decided by high-profile tweets or increased donations. And so, as negotiations continue on Capitol Hill and as moderate Democrats such as Joe Manchin take on more and more scrutiny from the party’s progressive wing, I implore my fellow progressives to think twice about the actual effects of the pressure they are applying.

If your goal is all or nothing, keep it up. If your goal is preserving as much of the original Build Back Better legislation as possible, maybe it’s time to take a step back, reevaluate and find a new strategy.

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