‘It’s not who’s a Democrat or who’s a Republican, it’s who do you trust?’…
(AFP) Senator Joe Manchin bounded from one side of the homecoming parade to another, shaking hands and hoping voters in West Virginia — deep Trump country — will send the Democrat back to Washington.
“We need you Joe!” shouted a woman on the 4th Avenue sidewalk where she watched parade floats roll through downtown Huntsville last Thursday.
Manchin, 71, but hustling like a politician half his age, pointed at the woman and jogged over. “I appreciate that.”
Manchin needs her now more than ever, less than two weeks out from the intensely watched November 6 midterm elections in which the control of Congress by President Donald Trump’s Republican Party could be at stake.
Manchin is one of 10 Senate Democrats running for re-election in states won by Trump. Five are relatively safe, in states like Ohio and Wisconsin.
For the moment, Manchin is pulling off quite a feat: leading in his race in a state that voted more heavily for Trump in 2016 than any other except Wyoming.
But four other Senate Democrats in Trump territory are facing grim prospects.
North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Montana’s John Tester are in peril. Like Manchin, they are candidates swimming upstream against a red tide that only grew stronger with Trump’s candidacy.
Manchin dismisses talk of Democrats struggling to hold the line, at least in West Virginia, “The Mountain State,” where he served as governor before entering the Senate.
“It’s not who’s a Democrat or who’s a Republican, it’s who do you trust?” Manchin told AFP in between hugs and selfies at the parade.
“I’ve given everything I’ve got and I think people realize that.”
Manchin is keenly aware of the fine political line he must walk in order to survive.
He supports coal miners and gun rights. The powerful National Rifle Association gives him a “D” rating this year but in 2012 the gun lobby endorsed him with an “A.”
And despite opposing recent legislation that would have denied federal tax dollars to women’s healthcare provider Planned Parenthood, which offers abortions, he calls himself a pro-life Democrat.
“Best undercover Republican in West Virginia,” whispered one woman who did not give her name.
‘Hurting’ over Kavanaugh vote
Manchin fiercely advocates for the working class, including preserving Social Security and expanding healthcare coverage. He blasts Republicans for wanting “to get rid of pre-existing conditions” protections.
But the Appalachian state at the heart of American coal country is socially conservative, leading Manchin to his toughest vote in years this month: bucking his party and supporting Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the US Supreme Court.
“There’s people that are hurting, sure. I understand that,” he said of his vote for Trump’s controversial nominee, who faced accusations that he sexually assaulted a woman when the two were teenagers.
“But that wasn’t a political vote,” he said. “It was the facts. The facts weren’t there.”
Manchin waited until Kavanaugh’s confirmation was assured before announcing his support, earning scorn from his Republican Senate challenger, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
Vice President Mike Pence also took a swipe. “That’s Joe Manchin for you: always there when you don’t need him,” Pence told a Saturday rally for Morrisey in Bridgeport, West Virginia.
Jennifer Duffy, who monitors US Senate races for Cook Political Report, said Heitkamp’s candidacy is in dire straits in North Dakota, which has shifted dramatically rightward in the past decade.
“She’s not a Republican, is really the problem there,” Duffy said, expressing surprise that Democrats like Heitkamp and McCaskill have managed to hold on in states where they are the last remaining Democrats elected to statewide office.
Manchin, too, is the lone Democratic holdout in statewide office.
As recently as 2000, West Virginia’s entire congressional delegation was all-Democrat. Unions dominated local politics, and there was a loyalty to the party of Franklin Roosevelt.
But it has been a steady shift to the right this millennium. By 2014, after tough new Obama-era coal regulations began to hit the local economy, the bottom had fallen out for Democrats and they lost their decades-long majority in the legislature.
“The party just straight left them,” Chad Mercer, who wore a Glock 19 pistol on his hip as he worked behind the counter of a White Sulphur Springs gun shop, said of voters.
The Democratic Party “abdicated their responsibilities” regarding guns and immigration, Mercer said, and failed to push back against a “war on coal” that devastated the industry.
Manchin, if re-elected, would only perpetuate the sense of aggrievement, Mercer insisted.
“There’s a deep history here of always being taken advantage of,” he said.
Manchin said he will always reach across the political aisle to “work through our differences.”
He’s confident he has enough support to win re-election.
“But let’s say, worst-case scenario it doesn’t happen,” Manchin poses.
“I get to come home.” Either way, he says, it’s “a win-win situation.”