How do you win re-election in a state where your party suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of President-elect Donald Trump last November?
It’s a question plaguing Senate Democrats, whose midterm map became considerably tougher with Trump’s surprise rout last fall. Ten incumbent Democrats serve in states Trump won, with five of those in states where he won by double digits.
But it’s one for which West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — perhaps Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbent this cycle — already seems to have an answer.
With Democrats still dazed by Trump’s surprise rout last fall and struggling to forge a path forward for the party, Manchin’s wasted no time in forging his own, beefing up his bipartisan bona fides and distancing himself from his own party in high-profile ways.
He avoided President Barack Obama’s visit to Capitol Hill and instead huddled with Vice President-elect Mike Pence, going so far as to exchange numbers with him and telling reporters he’ll act as a liaison between Senate Democrats and the White House.
“My job is basically to go up to the White House and meet with President-elect Trump and his team and Vice President Pence,” Manchin said, according to Roll Call. “We exchanged our personal telephones and we’ll keep in contact.”
He’s also been careful not to alienate Trump supporters by criticizing the president-elect — and has even embraced him at points. Asked by MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell about Trump’s tweeted attacks on the intelligence community, Manchin said only “it’s not my approach -- I wouldn’t be doing that,” but suggested the president-elect may have a point in wanting to reform the U.S. intelligence apparatus.
“I'm sure that any agency looks -- can we make it more efficient? Can we make it better? Can we streamline it? Get the FBI, the State Department, the CIA working more collaboratively rather than silos? That's all supposed to be done,” he said.
It’s similar to the playbook that helped deliver Manchin a landslide reelection victory in 2012, when he declined to endorse Obama and touted his opposition to cap-and-trade — and his support for gun rights — in a memorable ad where he came armed with a gun.
It’s a delicate dance that other vulnerable Democrats, like Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Sen. Jon Tester in Montana, haven’t yet tried to match. But coming from ground zero for the discontent that’s caused the white working class exodus from the Democratic Party that helped drive Trump to a win, Manchin may face the toughest fight of any vulnerable Democrat this cycle.
Though once a reliably blue state, Manchin is now the only Democrat in West Virginia’s congressional delegation. And though Democrats hold a registration advantage in West Virginia, it’s declined by nearly half since 2012, down to 13 percent.
“It has gone in just a few election cycles from being dominated by Democrats to Republicans now holding all three congressional districts, one of the Senate seats and both chambers of the state legislature — the political headwinds are fierce,” said Hoppy Kercheval, a veteran West Virginia radio broadcaster.
A declining economy hobbled by the collapse of the coal mining industry, which was helped along by environmental regulations implemented under President Obama, have helped accelerate the partisan shift in West Virginia and other rural states that were once populated with generations of Reagan Democrats.
Still, Kercheval said that Manchin’s proven political talents mean that “even though the winds have shifted, [he] would still be the favorite” in 2018. And Manchin’s allies are confident that he’s built enough of a reputation as a nonpartisan problem-solver, as former chief of staff Chris Kofinis put it, that he can withstand even the toughest political climate.
“There’s no question it’s a challenging political environment,” Kofinis acknowledged. "What I think has made Senator Manchin unique is that he really is someone who is really focused and fixated on doing what’s best for his state and his constituents, regardless of party, regardless of politics,” he said.
But Republicans say they were hobbled by a weak candidate that cycle, and are already looking at a much stronger field, with all three of the state’s congressmen and its Republican attorney general already privately expressing interest in a run.
And they argue his efforts to navigate the tough political climate and stay squarely in the center of the two parties could come across as simply political gymnastics and backfire with voters.
They point to Manchin’s nuanced opposition to the GOP’s plans to repeal Obamacare as one example, where he agreed the law needed to be fixed but said he opposed repeal because it would be fiscally irresponsible.
“He’s trying to thread such a small needle here that I don’t know what his path forward is gonna be,” said West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas.
Lucas said Manchin will be confronted with his support for Hillary Clinton and asked to answer for the Democratic Party’s more progressive stances on issues like energy policy and gun control.
“Running to the middle is not going to win him votes in West Virginia,” he said.