MATEWAN, W.Va. — On Thursday, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III became the first Democratic senator to support President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
On Friday, he came to this town of 484 people to explain why.
The United Mine Workers of America was hosting Manchin for an ask-anything town hall meeting, and one of the first skeptical questions focused on what “working people” could expect from Judge Neil Gorsuch.
“He’s been portrayed as not being for the working person,” said Manchin. “Well, I talked to Merrick Garland” — former president Barack Obama’s nominee for the same court vacancy, whom Republicans blocked last year. “I thought he was a good man. He never ruled in favor of anybody but the agencies, which were killing us. And I said, ‘Judge Garland, how come the agencies always win with you? How come the average person never does, not once?’ ”
In two acrobatic minutes, Manchin managed to jump completely clear of a question about Trump and aim his frustrations instead at fellow Democrats. He stated his problems with the Obama administration (“the agencies” was code for the Environmental Protection Agency, the least popular federal bureaucracy in coal country), blamed Democrats for the impending showdown in the Senate over the Gorsuch nomination (“Harry Reid started this”) and — most importantly — described the access he’d earned by dealing with Trump.
Perhaps the most vulnerable Senate Democrat of the 25 up for reelection in 2018, Manchin is testing whether voters in a state that overwhelmingly supported Trump will also continue to back him. He pulls no punches with his own party, which voters from his state and others along the Appalachians abandoned overwhelmingly as they looked for someone to blame for the collapse of the coal industry and their way of life.
“The Democrats became so politically correct and so perfect,” Manchin said in an interview in Matewan, after walking its short main street in a grey-and-black UMWA polo shirt. “The people in there, they grew up knowing that the Democratic Party would be there ensuring their jobs. And now it’s the party they believe is preventing them from working.”
But Manchin is an enthusiastic critic of Trump’s party too. His message is complicated: He tells West Virginians why Republicans are tools for the wealthy, is trying to work with the president his state elected, and remains firmly wedded to a party that is increasingly environmentalist and focused on winning a diversifying, suburban electorate.
“For me to be a Republican, I would have to put the bottom line before I would a human being,” Manchin told The Washington Post last month.
It’s a high-wire act, with Republicans hoping for a stumble.
The first months of the Trump administration have reshaped the Democratic Party, but Manchin has participated only on the margins. After the election, he was added to an expanded Democratic strategy group, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
He is more adamant than ever that he will stay within the party, in part so it won’t become exclusively populated by the sort of people who demand he be primaried. (We Will Replace You, a new PAC, reiterated its call for a Democratic primary after Manchin’s Gorsuch statement.)
In West Virginia, Manchin presents himself as the Democrat who wants Trump to fulfill the promises that won over miners and workers — and hopefully, nothing else. Most of the Matewan town hall focused on the Miners Protection Act, Manchin’s cause for most of his Senate career, which would transfer money from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund to pay for the health-care insurance and pensions that thousands of miners lost after Patriot Coal and other companies went bust.
Every Senate Democrat has endorsed the bill, which Manchin touts as an accomplishment.
When he’s talking about that bill, or about health care, Manchin speaks in stark moral terms. On Thursday, he told miners, he met with the president and got a fresh assurance that the miners’ bill would get his support — even if Republicans took Manchin’s name off it. He asked the president to tweet about it, too.
“How long did it take them to bail out Wall Street?” Manchin asked in Matewan. “It took ’em hours. Can’t you take care of the people who basically made the country?”
In those moments, Manchin sounds like Bernie Sanders, whose 2016 primary victory here is thrown back at Manchin whenever progressives want to get a rise out of him. Manchin endorsed Hillary Clinton for president; in an interview, he recalls how Clinton pledged to team him up with her husband — the last Democrat to win the state in a presidential election — to craft a bill for miners.
“The bottom line is, Bernie never had a glove laid on him,” said Manchin. “If they knew that Bernie Sanders would shut down every coal plant, every coal mine — because he’s said it — it’d have been a complete different primary outcome. But Hillary was so detested. Bernie would not have won West Virginia, knowing West Virginia the way I know it. He’d have got maybe 40 or so.”
That was better than Clinton, whose 27 percent of the vote represented the worst performance by a Democratic presidential nominee since West Virginia became a state. In 2012, when he won his first full term, Manchin, a former governor, took 61 percent of the vote and ran 25 points ahead of Barack Obama. Even if Manchin improves on Clinton’s vote by 25 points next year, he’d win by single digits.
Republicans, who need eight Senate seats to block a filibuster on the Gorsuch confirmation, are deeply familiar with the math. Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.), who in 2014 wiped out the state’s last Democratic House member, said in January that he was “strongly considering” a run against Manchin. A video tracker from America Rising, a PAC dedicated to opposition research on Democrats, shadows Manchin at his town halls, and in Matewan he shouted a question after the senator had shaken every hand and headed toward a waiting van.
“Are you going to pass new gun-control laws?” asked the tracker.
“I really appreciate you coming here,” said Manchin.
The question previewed the attack any Republican opponent will probably use in 2018, zinging Manchin for the background check bill he co-sponsored after the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn. That might have been Manchin’s low point of popularity. But November 2016 might have been Trump’s high point. In Matewan, and in the rest of Mingo County, voters offered tempered praise for Trump. They’re quicker to say what they didn’t like about Clinton than what Trump has done in office.
“She was flat-out against the mines,” said Mike Land, 62, whose health insurance will run out if the miners’ bill isn’t passed by the end of April.
“He needs to put the phone away,” said Hubert Lowe, 63.
In November, 83.2 percent of Mingo County voters went for Trump. Four years earlier, 72.8 percent had gone for Manchin. Most of West Virginia had voted for both of them at one time or another. In that context, and in the extra context Manchin adds on the stump, the Gorsuch nomination is both a kindness to Trump and a fair deal for Democrats. The senator, recounting his conversations with the nominee, described a bargain any sane populist would make.
“He said, ‘You don’t think I was Donald Trump’s first choice?’ ” said Manchin. “ ‘I probably got chosen to come up here because they thought I would have a better chance of getting 60. If you all fight and stop me, I guarantee that what comes behind is going to be a lot different than I am.’ ”
Manchin’s high-wire act is likely to continue. He sees the president’s executive order lifting a rule preventing coal mining waste from impacting streams — Manchin was right by his side, in every camera shot — as good for the state. But he believes the Republicans’ designs on health care would have been atrocious, much like the Republican-run legislature’s passage of right-to-work legislation.
“It’s awful what they’re doing to the working man,” Manchin said in the interview in Matewan. “What they’re doing to union workers, what they’re doing to wages, what they’re doing to pensions.”
Why, with all of that in front of them, did so many voters go Republican?
“I can’t explain it,” Manchin said. “You know what? I think it was just so tainted by Washington politics.”
The interview was over. Manchin walked out of the van for a short indulgence — a tour of the small-town museum commemorating the 1920 coal miners’ strike, when the stakes and risks were perfectly clear.