The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Manchin, at the apex of his power, finds few allies in his quest for bipartisanship

A letter hangs loose in the sign above the senator’s office in downtown Fairmont, W.Va., which got hit recently by heavy storms that damaged homes, businesses and city infrastructure. (Kristian Thacker for The Washington Post)

FAIRMONT, W.Va. — On a recent Sunday afternoon, Sen. Joe Manchin III called with big news for the mayor of this 18,000-person town nestled in a lush valley where the Tygart and West Fork rivers meet to form the north-flowing Monongahela.

“Hey, buddy,” Manchin said, using his signature greeting, before explaining how a federal stimulus package that had just passed would mean nearly $8 million for the two-century-old town dotted with picturesque red-brick buildings and beset by frequent flooding.

“He said, ‘What do you think about getting the money?’ ” recalled the town’s mayor, Thomas Mainella, who, like many civic leaders in the state, has known Manchin for decades. “He was as excited about it as we were.”

One topic that didn’t come up was how Manchin had, at least temporarily, put in jeopardy the $1.9 trillion bill that was the first major pandemic relief effort pushed by the new Biden administration, and the source of the money for Fairmont.

The senator from West Virginia — a red-state Democrat in a 50-50 Senate who has emerged as the ultimate swing vote of the Biden era — temporarily sent negotiations into a tailspin when he pressed for a cut to jobless benefits that were part of the sprawling bill. Manchin eventually agreed to support it, but only after about 12 hours in which he was intensely courted by both parties and the Democrats agreed to a modest reduction.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said on June 6 he intends to oppose a sweeping voting rights bill that would expand access to voting across the United States. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Jabin Botsford/Reuters)

The last-minute reshuffling was a reminder of how much power is wielded these days by one 73-year-old senator, much to the chagrin of many on the Democratic left. And it was a typical move for Manchin. Through a nearly four-decade political career that has carried him from the state legislature to the governor’s mansion to 11 years in the U.S. Senate, he has positioned himself as a bridge-building dealmaker who can deliver for his home state, not a partisan warrior or an ideologue.

But in recent weeks, as Republican leaders have rejected compromises on voting rights and a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and as Manchin tries to help orchestrate a bipartisan deal on infrastructure, the West Virginian has become the center of intense pressure and curiosity. He is increasingly the focal point for the White House, liberal Democrats and some Republicans who see a malleable politician with singular sway over the fate of legislation to address U.S. democracy, taxes, police brutality and climate change.

At issue is whether Manchin can be persuaded to cast aside the gospel of bipartisanship and agree to kill, or weaken, the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes (that’s 10 Republicans in today’s Senate) for most bills.

One of the country’s top teachers union leaders, Randi Weingarten, recently pressed him over dinner to back a Democratic voting rights bill. Manchin held forth on the same topic during a recent dinner that featured Republican megadonor Harold Hamm. And there have been dozens of calls with President Biden, who nominated the senator’s wife, Gayle Manchin, to co-chair a commission that distributes funds to the Appalachian region, as the White House has ramped up its campaign to woo the senator.

Manchin, meanwhile, has sent mixed signals in recent weeks that have left many guessing about whether he is carrying out a grand strategy or grasping for one.

He penned an op-ed in a home state paper opposing a Democratic voting rights bill, citing a lack of GOP support — only to circulate a memo outlining a compromise last week that embraced some Republican ideas, although it was rejected by GOP leaders.

He has repeatedly said he would not agree to “eliminate or weaken” the filibuster — only to tell a group of donors to the centrist group No Labels last week on a Zoom call that he’s mulling some ideas for doing so, including lowering the threshold needed to pass bills to 55. A recording of his comments was obtained by the Intercept.

Those who best know Manchin’s politics say that he sees his flexibility as a virtue.

“He says that he will have an open mind. He understands that he’s not always right,” said Larry Puccio, a longtime political adviser who worked as Manchin’s chief of staff in the governor’s mansion.

But others are growing tired of Manchin’s approach, particularly his stubborn insistence on trying to negotiate with a radicalized Republican Party whose leaders take their cues from former president Donald Trump and help spread falsehoods about the 2020 election while voting rights for Black Americans hang in the balance.

“The fact that he is joining the Republicans and not stopping the restriction of Black voters around the country is a slap in the face,” said the Rev. David Fryson, a lawyer and senior pastor at New First Baptist Church of Kanawha City in Charleston, the state capital.

He said he was recently on a conference call with other Black church leaders in the state. One pastor, who is close with Manchin, came to the senator’s defense on the call.

“In the past that might have held some sway,” Fryson said. “But this time it was just embarrassing.”

Close-up view of politics

This account of Manchin’s rise to power — and how he is wielding it — is based on interviews with 28 people close to him, including members of his family, political advisers and state officials. They paint a portrait of a canny pol whose centrist instincts have helped him survive and even thrive as a Democrat while his home state has veered sharply to the right — instincts being put to the test in a hostile climate with few political incentives to deal across party lines.

Manchin declined multiple requests to be interviewed but did answer a few questions in a 90-second exchange in a Senate hallway Thursday.

He described being influenced heavily by his father, who owned stores that sold groceries, furniture and carpeting in and around the tiny coal-mining town of Farmington, where Manchin grew up and at times worked as a carpet installer.

John Manchin was a quiet backroom political operator. When Joe was 12 years old, the family hosted Bobby Kennedy and Teddy Kennedy, including for spaghetti dinner in the family kitchen, when their brother John F. Kennedy was trying to win the crucial 1960 West Virginia primary, family members recall.

“Dad was always the one trying to connect somebody with somebody that might have been in the political arena, that could help somebody who needed help,” the senator said. “So that’s all I ever saw.”

Joe Manchin grew up in a modest brick home on the banks of Buffalo Creek, a small tributary that frequently floods. When he was a boy, it contained only a few rooms. But the family has expanded it over the years. Now, in addition to an open kitchen, it has a generous living room with a piano, and multiple bedrooms — including one reserved for the senator and his wife with a sign that reads: “Joe and Gayle.”

His sister lives there, but in many ways the home serves as a shrine to the family’s political lineage — packed with framed photographs that chronicle decades of reunions and events.

There are shots of Manchin’s famous uncle, A. James Manchin, a charismatic figure who had a larger-than-life presence in the state and who was elected secretary of state and then treasurer, a post he gave up amid a financial scandal.

Joe Manchin’s life is chronicled as well. A yellowed article from 1963 gushes about his high school football exploits, saying that as quarterback Manchin could “leapfrog” over members of the opposing team and crediting him with “one of the most beautiful runs of the season.”

The family has kept stories about his unsuccessful 1996 attempt to become governor, when he lost in the Democratic primary and angered some by backing the Republican candidate, Cecil Underwood, who won.

A large, panoramic photo of Manchin’s 2005 gubernatorial inauguration hangs on the second floor of his family home, marking what friends and allies say was the start of his favorite career chapter.

As governor, Manchin started his days early and would stand outside the office around 8:30 a.m. to note which staff members were on time and which were late, recalled Puccio, then the chief of staff. And he stayed late, frequently inviting opposing sides for beer and pizza at the governor’s residence.

He liked to hang out in the “well” of the Capitol, under the rotunda where the lobbyists loitered, hoping to catch lawmakers, recalled Karen Price, former president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and now head of the West Virginia Roundtable, a business group.

Typically, Price said, governors would summon lawmakers down to the first-floor gubernatorial suite. “Not with Joe,” she said. “Joe came upstairs. Joe went to see them.”

Activists and lobbyists found that they could persuade Manchin by making a case that their position was best for the state, said W. Kent Carper, the president of the Kanawha County Commission and a prominent Democratic lawyer in Charleston.

Carper recalled trying to persuade Manchin not to construct a halfway house in Institute, next to a historically Black college. “Some of his people thought it was a swell idea,” Carper said, but after he made a case that West Virginia would suffer, Manchin rejected the view of his cabinet and withdrew his support from the project, Carper said.

Friends and associates say he relished bringing together opposing sides as governor.

He occasionally toured West Virginia with the heads of the state’s chamber of commerce and the state’s AFL-CIO. “He introduced us by saying ‘We’ve got business and labor here, and we’re working on solutions,’ ” recalls Steve Roberts, the longtime president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

The urge to mediate went beyond just politics. Manchin once inserted himself into a dispute between two football programs in the state. Marshall University, a school of about 13,000 in Huntington, desperately wanted to play against West Virginia University, the state’s flagship land-grant institution.

Manchin pushed the two sides to come to a deal. “He said, ‘I think the game would be great for the state,’ ” recalled Bobby Pruett, the former Marshall coach. “He orchestrated all of it. He forced it.”

Limits begin to emerge

Manchin’s dealmaking reputation in the Senate made him an object of obsession for the Trump White House. He talked with Trump about “20 or 30 times,” according to a person familiar with those conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private discussions.

But as bipartisanship continued to dissipate during the Trump years, the limits of Manchin’s approach were becoming apparent.

He considered voting for Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, an anecdote he detailed in the conversation with No Labels donors. He told them that in exchange for his vote, he had exacted some concessions from the GOP.

“The last day before they voted, they said, ‘Joe, we don’t need your vote now.’ ” Manchin said. “So everything I’d brought to the table was thrown out the window.”

Democrats had hoped that the 2020 election would deliver a clear Senate majority, but the resulting 50-50 split, with Vice President Harris casting the deciding vote, gave the party the slimmest of control — and elevated Manchin to the kingmaker role that has frustrated many of his colleagues.

Biden this month appeared to single out Manchin and another centrist Democrat, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, when he lamented that he has to work with a narrow Democratic House majority and “two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends.”

President Biden on June 1 appeared to call out Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) for aligning too closely with Republicans. (Video: The Washington Post)

But Manchin himself has started to voice some frustration, as well.

In his call with No Labels donors, he recalled that he asked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for assistance in recruiting Republicans to support the creation of an independent commission to probe the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

“I said, ‘Mitch, I need your help on this, I can’t continue to do it all by myself.’ And he said, ‘Joe, that’s just not good for our politics,’ ” according to the recording published by the Intercept.

A spokesman for McConnell declined to comment on the exchange.

Manchin said that he’d identified at least 12 Republicans willing to support the commission, but that number fell to six or seven after McConnell publicly opposed it.

Manchin revealed to the donors that he feels the pressure on the filibuster rule, saying he’s taking “all the arrows and spears” from activists and colleagues who want it changed.

Manchin’s attempts to find a middle ground on voting rights have, so far, proved equally ineffective as he faces pressure from all sides.

Andrew “Mac” Warner, West Virginia’s Republican secretary of state, came to Washington to meet in person with Manchin and testify at a Senate hearing in opposition to the measure.

Central to Warner’s argument was a letter he touted that was signed by 54 of 55 West Virginia election clerks. The letter is just two paragraphs long, and states opposition to the voting measure and support for keeping the filibuster intact for voting rights legislation.

Before a Senate committee, Warner offered more detailed objections, saying that same-day registration would be challenging with West Virginia’s shaky Internet connections and decrying federal mandates on maintaining voter rolls.

“He’s worked with some of these same clerks, he’s aware of the issues,” Warner said in an interview. “And when 54 of the county clerks say they’re against it, I think he has to listen.”

It also helps that Warner has a close personal bond with Manchin, who was a pallbearer at the funeral of Warner’s brother.

Friends are pressing from the other side, too.

Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she suggested that the Biden administration appoint Gayle Manchin, a former West Virginia education secretary, to be the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, which oversees millions in state and federal funds to a 13-state region that includes West Virginia. Over dinner with the Manchins, Weingarten said she pushed them to support the voting rights measure.

“I thought it was important to have a conversation about democracy and how to save democracy,” she said. “And they clearly wanted to have it, because they knew what I wanted to talk about.”

Some Democrats are stepping up their efforts to get Manchin’s attention.

A “Moral March on Manchin,” sponsored by the Poor People’s Campaign, brought hundreds of protesters to the state capital last week, according to local media reports. Another, broader protest, focused on Manchin along with “the ruling wealthy elite,” is set for Washington on Monday.

Manchin last week appeared to respond to the cajoling, circulating a three-page memo outlining potential changes to voting that could win his support, including adopting some traditional Republican priorities, such as mandating that voters provide identification and giving state and local elections officials a free hand to maintain their voter rolls.

His plan was praised by Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and voting rights activist, whose support was immediately turned into a reason for Republicans to reject Manchin’s idea. McConnell declared that there was no reason for more federal involvement in elections.

Manchin, who does not face reelection until 2024, when he will be 77, was dismissive of the pressure back home in his recent talks with GOP megadonor Hamm, saying he was unconcerned about political blowback brewing in his home state for his position on voting rights, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

“He’s taking his own polling every day,” said Jonathan Kott, a former aide. “I’ve never seen a senator’s phone ring as much as his.”

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.