That’s not a very generous formulation, of course. An evenly split Senate also is one in which individual concerns that might deviate from a party caucus come into sharper relief. A senator who is more moderate or more extreme than his or her caucus can force accommodations that would otherwise not be possible. To his or her constituents, that’s a boon. To his or her colleagues, it’s an annoyance.
The “him” here, by the way, is Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). Manchin is a moderate Democrat from a blindingly red state, a senator who has somehow managed to win reelection despite broadly supporting a policy platform that some significant portion of his state loathes. (The “her,” of course, could refer to one of several people.)
After Manchin announced that he would oppose President Biden’s nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget, Democrats gnashed their teeth. Some wondered if West Virginia could elect a Democrat who’s more amenable to being a team player, someone who would not be the sort to parlay his leverage into frustrating votes.
The answer, it’s safe to say, is no.
West Virginia’s politics have taken a hard-right turn over the past two decades. A state that as recently as 1996 voted for a Democratic presidential candidate and had two Democratic senators is now one in which even a narrow Manchin victory (such as the one he saw in 2018) is essentially a miracle. Across the state, in every county, Republicans do much better now than they did 20 years ago.
The pattern in presidential races has been remarkably consistent. Remember, it’s usually the case that the presidential vote will vacillate a bit in a state as more- or less-popular candidates earn their parties’ nominations. But in West Virginia, that vacillation happens only at the edges. In presidential contest after presidential contest, it’s a rightward march across all 55 counties (represented by the lines connecting a county across the years), slowed only slightly by Biden in 2020.
Compare that with the Senate votes that have occurred over that same period. Still rightward movement, but Democrats were faring better until 2014.
To put a fine point on it, here’s the year-by-year comparison of the two votes.
This is how it works, of course. A presidential candidate has to appeal to voters throughout the country. A Democratic presidential candidate in particular has to try to hold White working-class voters in Appalachia while boosting turnout among Black voters near Atlanta. It’s a tricky balance, which national Democrats have proved to be not great at. A senator can simply appeal to his or her own state. There is still some variation, but the swing is more modest.
Even by that standard, though, Manchin stands out. The state’s two long-serving Democratic senators — Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller — managed to keep winning reelection through 2008.
When Byrd died in 2010, Manchin, then the governor, appointed a replacement until a special election could be held. Manchin ran in that election and won. He was up for reelection in 2012, a presidential year in which Democrats turned out more than they might have in a midterm election. Manchin won, but set up a tough reelection bid in the off-year elections of 2018.
As it turned out, 2018 was a good year for Democrats nationally, and Manchin again won reelection.
But consider how he fared compared to the two Democrats who tried to succeed Rockefeller. In 2014, Natalie Tennant lost by nearly 30 points. Last year, Paula Jean Swearengin lost by more than 40. You can see how Manchin’s two reelection bids pulled the state’s vote back to the left … before they shot back to the right.
This doesn’t mean that Manchin is the only candidate who could win a Senate race in West Virginia at this point. It also doesn’t mean that he would win reelection in 2024, should he choose to seek another term. It does suggest, though, that the odds of a Democrat winning election to the Senate from West Virginia are low — and probably dropping.
Politics doesn’t really work this way, but if the Democratic majority depends on having a senator from West Virginia, Manchin may be the best bet the party has. For the moment, that’s the position in which the party finds itself, meaning that it and its voters should prepare to hang their hopes on a lot of news releases from Manchin over the next few years.