Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has won a second full term in the Senate, defeating his Republican opponent, Patrick Morrisey, and defying the trend of increased partisan polarization across the country.
West Virginia last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 2000. In 2016, Donald Trump won the state by a towering 42-point margin. And last year, the state’s Democratic governor saw which way the political winds seemed to be blowing — and switched parties, becoming a Republican.
But the state has a long history of voting for Democratic politicians for many offices, which has not yet entirely receded into the past. Democrats held both of West Virginia’s US Senate seats from 1959 until 2015 (when Republicans took one).
Manchin is part of this long tradition of West Virginia moderate Democrats. He served as the state’s governor from 2005 through 2010. Then he won a special election for this Senate seat in 2010 and held on to it two years later in 2012 — even though his state overwhelmingly disapproved of President Barack Obama. And in office, he distinguished himself as easily the most conservative Democrat in the chamber.
Still, Republicans were champing at the bit to take on Manchin in 2018, and eventually Morrisey, the state attorney general, emerged from a bitter three-way primary as the nominee. But immediately, polls showed Manchin with a comfortable lead, and they continued to do so through the rest of the race, as Morrisey failed to gain traction. The conventional wisdom settled in that Manchin was one of the safest Trump country Democrats.
Manchin is a throwback to an earlier era of American politics
Manchin pulled this off by establishing a brand of political independence. During his first Senate campaign in 2010, he bragged in an ad that he’d “protect our Second Amendment rights” and “get the federal government off our backs,” that he would “cut federal spending,” that he’d sued the Environmental Protection Agency — and topped it off by shooting Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill. With a gun.
But he was also helped by Republican missteps — particularly on the issue of health care, an important one in the poor, rural state. Morrisey, his opponent, signed on to a lawsuit to strike down Obamacare, filed by a group of Republican state attorneys general. Manchin then denounced this as “Patrick Morrisey’s lawsuit to take away health care from people with preexisting conditions” — and, naturally, shot the lawsuit.
Despite returning to his time-tested strategy of shooting unpopular policy documents, Manchin didn’t take the race for granted. In early October, he broke with his party again by becoming the only Democrat in the US Senate to vote for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. “Based on all the information I have available to me, I’ve found Judge Kavanaugh to be a qualified jurist,” he said. However, the canny politician did hold off on announcing his position until Republicans had already locked down the 50 votes Kavanaugh needed.
In many ways, Manchin is a throwback to an older time in American politics, when many more voters often looked beyond party label to support a politician with an independent record or a winning personality. Few of these moderates remain — and it’s looking like even fewer will after 2018. But Manchin has won himself another six years in office.