Sen. Joe Manchin’s island is shrinking.
The West Virginia Democrat’s path to reelection in 2018 was already the toughest of his career. Now, party-switching Gov. Jim Justice just complicated it even more. By defecting to the GOP in a show of unity with President Donald Trump in Huntington on Thursday, the bombastic governor has left Manchin more isolated than ever, the lone big-name Democrat in a state once dominated by them.
“It can’t help Joe,” said former West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler, a Democrat, of Justice’s move. “But Joe’s always run on his own.”
A former governor and secretary of state himself, Manchin’s fate in the overwhelmingly pro-Trump state was always going to rise and fall on his own distinctive political brand. But Justice’s flip handed the state’s ascendant Republican Party a potent piece of ammunition that Manchin wasn’t counting on, while depriving the senator of a potentially useful surrogate.
“The only way Gov. Justice could have been less helpful to Sen. Manchin was handing out pictures of him campaigning with Secretary Clinton bragging about putting a lot of coal miners out of business,” said Colin Reed, senior advisor to the America Rising opposition research group that’s going after Manchin’s seat in 2018. “By switching parties, Gov. Justice highlighted the political liability Manchin can’t shake: he’s a Democrat in a state that’s trending Republican and showing no signs of slowing down.”
Overnight, Senate Republicans’ campaign arm put together a video juxtaposing Justice’s proximity to Trump with Manchin’s praise for Hillary Clinton — political poison in a state where Clinton lost all 55 counties.
“Joe Manchin is out of touch with West Virginia,” reads the digital spot, now running across the state.
Despite the attacks, Manchin remains popular at home, with a 57 percent approval rating and nearly 90 percent name recognition in last month’s Morning Consult poll. But he’s still going to need all the help he can get.
After Trump stormed to a landslide victory in West Virginia in November, both Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey jumped into the Republican race to challenge Manchin. And the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC on Thursday kicked off its own anti-Manchin barrage with digital ads even before the Justice news broke.
Aside from the ads, though, Manchin’s name barely surfaced on West Virginia’s political talk radio programming on Friday. And neither Manchin, the Democratic infrastructure backing him, nor any of his Republican challengers immediately changed their strategies in the aftermath of Justice’s surprise move.
To some Democrats, it’s confirmation that the fallout from the party switch will be limited.
“I legitimately cannot fathom how this has any impact on Joe’s campaign. There is almost no way that next fall would have ended with a Manchin-Justice statewide tour, but more importantly, Justice has already seen a dramatic decline in his job approval while Manchin is currently more popular,” said a Democrat who has worked closely with Manchin.
Republicans were always likely to try to tie Manchin to his unpopular national party, the Democrat added: “The fact that Jim Justice became a Republican doesn’t change what the Republicans will try to say about [Manchin], but his brand is stronger than those attacks and has withstood those cheap shots in multiple campaigns."
Still, the quiet after the storm reflected an uncertainty about how the electorate will behave in a place where statewide Democrats are nearing extinction — but where national Democrats are optimistic a well-known figure with a reputation for bucking his party can survive.
Both confident and eager to avoid the hyper-partisan current political environment, Manchin has been slow to ramp up for 2018: he waited until June 30 to kick off his campaign with a fundraising reception in Charleston, according to an invitation obtained by POLITICO. That was over six months after many of his similarly vulnerable Democratic colleagues began repositioning themselves for the Trump era.
But in West Virginia the transition to Republican domination has been so rapid that the first comment to come from Manchin’s office on Thursday went out of its way to note that he was still a Democrat.
In 2014, Republicans gained control of the state legislature for the first time in 83 years and Shelley Moore Capito became West Virginia’s first Republican senator in 55 years. Jenkins, now one of Manchin’s challengers, switched to the GOP that year in order to challenge a 19-term Democratic incumbent.
Jenkins said Justice’s party switch was just the latest sign the national Democratic party is hopelessly out of touch with the pro-gun, coal-producing state, which has seen thousands of voters change their registration from Democrat to Republican.
“The Democratic party’s agenda is not the agenda of West Virginia,” he said, adding: “What Jim Justice has done may be out of the ordinary for governors. It is not out of the ordinary for West Virginians.”
Jenkins said Manchin could no longer hope to stick out as a trustworthy Democrat. “He’s become a Washington insider. He’s part of the Schumer-Warren-Sanders leadership team.”
Manchin, who won his first full Senate term in 2012, has skillfully navigated the new landscape. He distanced himself from Barack Obama’s administration, siding with those who viewed it as waging a ‘war against coal.” And he has at times been closer to the Trump White House than any other Democrat, visiting with the president-elect in Trump Tower during the transition, during which time he was briefly considered for a cabinet post.
That’s muddied GOP efforts to portray him as a rubber stamp for Democratic leadership: a handful of Republicans said Friday that they were disappointed that neither Trump nor Justice singled Manchin out on stage this week, which would have given them a neat clip for television ads.
The senator’s more immediate headache comes from the left. Progressives — including many who repeatedly point to Bernie Sanders’ victory in the Democratic primary there last year — regularly accuse Manchin of being an anti-environment, pro-gun fake Democrat despite his new leadership role in the Senate caucus and his gun control legislation.
Thanks to Justice — a longtime Manchin friend who repeatedly donated to Manchin’s campaigns, even when he was registered as a Republican — Manchin now must remind his party they can still rely on him.
“They have egg on their face and a stick in the eye,” said Kessler, who ran against Justice in the 2016 Democratic gubernatorial primary, of Manchin and his allies. “How do they explain this to their party membership — that their savior turned out to be a Benedict Arnold?"
Former Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, who lost his seat in Congress to Jenkins, predicted “minor rumblings” of annoyance with Manchin, since the senator was one of Justice’s main validators during last year’s gubernatorial campaign.
It’s not clear yet whether Justice will get involved in the Senate race. Jenkins, who said he reached out to the governor’s office to try to schedule a sit-down, indicated he wasn’t totally sure of the governor’s new allegiances and couldn’t say whether Justice would hit the campaign trail with the GOP nominee next fall.
“I would certainly hope Gov. Justice would support, embrace the Republican nominees at all levels,” he said. “It would be very disappointing if he chose not to fully support the team he is now a member of.”