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Joe Manchin becomes a villain in the 2022 Democratic primaries

Liberal candidates are scornfully tying more moderate rivals to the West Virginia senator, who responded to his critics in an interview with NBC News.

WASHINGTON — Sen. Joe Manchin has been labeled the most powerful man in Washington for his willingness to single-handedly tank President Joe Biden’s agenda. But on the Democratic campaign trail in 2022, Manchin, the centrist from West Virginia, is a target of derision.

Democrats with some conservative policy positions are being scornfully compared to him by rivals appealing to primary voters to carry the party’s torch. Manchin has become a one-man power center in the 50-50 Senate, flexing his muscles for and against his party as he represents a ruby-red state Biden lost by 39 points.

Jessica Cisneros, who is seeking to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas in a competitive primary runoff May 24, likened Cuellar to Manchin for his willingness to be the only House Democrat to vote against legislation to codify abortion rights.

“There’s so many key issues where he’s always siding with Republicans, and he could become the Joe Manchin of the House,” Cisneros said Thursday on MSNBC. “We don’t want Henry Cuellar to be the deciding vote on the future of our fundamental freedoms and rights in this country. We can’t risk that.”

For Democrats like Cisneros, Manchin serves as a foil to paint moderate rivals as stymieing Biden's agenda, which could be a way not only to attract progressive votes but also send a signal to moderate pro-Biden Democrats in primaries. It remains to be seen whether the tactic will be successful. And for a Democrat hanging on in a Republican state, the criticisms from within his party may only burnish his image as a maverick.

Cuellar, in an interview, defended his stance on abortion and said he supports funding for Planned Parenthood. “The Democratic Party was set up to be a big-tent party where you allow different people from different ideas, philosophies,” he said. “We should not purify people and say you have to be 100 percent like me.”

In a competitive primary in Oregon, Rep. Kurt Schrader, an elusive vote for Biden’s priorities, is being compared to Manchin by Democratic rival Jamie McLeod-Skinner.

“He’s like the Joe Manchin of the House,” McLeod-Skinner said in an interview. “Just like Joe Manchin right now is blocking our country moving forward on some really important recovery legislation and agenda, Kurt has blocked and stripped things out and watered things down in the House.”

McLeod-Skinner cited Schrader’s vote in committee to reject the party's prescription drug savings policy in the Build Back Better Act, which forced Democrats to curtail it. She also noted his calls to break off infrastructure into a separate bill and his initial vote against the American Rescue Plan before he supported it in the end.

Campaign spokeswoman Deb Barnes defended Schrader's "record of delivering results for Oregon," saying he has "been a partner to the Biden administration, helping to build the Build Back Better Act that allows Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and cap the cost of insulin."

In a testy Pennsylvania Senate primary, Democratic front-runner John Fetterman has promised voters that he won’t be a “Joe Manchin Democrat,” criticizing Manchin's opposition to a $15-an-hour minimum wage and resistance to Biden’s economic agenda.

When his chief rival, Rep. Conor Lamb, sought to tie Fetterman to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in a recent debate, Fetterman reminded voters that Lamb has been endorsed by Manchin.

“Say what you will about Bernie Sanders — at least he supported and voted for Joe Biden’s agenda, as opposed to Joe Manchin, your mentor and someone that’s endorsed you in this 2022 race,” Fetterman told Lamb onstage.

Lamb responded, “First of all, I’m just not sure who John thinks he’s sharing the stage with.” He noted his strong support in the House for the elements of Biden’s agenda.

Asked about the campaign trail criticisms of him from Fetterman and others, Manchin said in an interview: “I don’t know John and them.

“I would like to think there’s responsible Democrats like me. And I would like to work with all of them. I would like to think that, you know, we’re all in this together. I don’t know these people who are talking about me. But I’m happy to sit down and talk to them.”

It's not clear how successful the tactic will be. Nina Turner, a progressive Democrat and frequent Manchin critic who took on Rep. Shontel Brown, D-Ohio, in a primary, was defeated by a wide margin Tuesday in a rematch of a special election last year.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked about the criticisms of his colleagues, said only that some Democrats, including him, are “frustrated that we’re not doing more with the majority that the voters gave us.”

“We got the majority, and under unusual circumstances, we got it on Jan. 6, when the Capitol was under attack. I think people expected us to act with a sense of urgency because of the circumstances under which we got it,” Kaine said.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who has worked with Manchin on various bipartisan projects, said only, “Joe Manchin is a friend of mine.”

He paused, then added: “A good friend of mine. Just went out with him the other night.”

Republicans, who have cheered on Manchin’s willingness to scale back or kill elements of Biden’s agenda, are full of praise for him.

Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican, hailed Manchin as “the one Democrat” who understands that “inflation is a real problem,” that “American energy is important for our national security” and that the U.S. needs “a secure border.”

“I work closely with him on the Energy Committee, and I think he is focused on the right issues,” Barrasso said. “And the Democrats — as well as the president, the other Joe — is refusing to face the reality that the American people are facing.”

More recently, Manchin has weighed in on a Republican House primary, cutting a TV ad backing one GOP candidate over another. Asked whether Manchin has influence over Republican-leaning voters, Barrasso responded: “It’s West Virginia. It’s his home state. He seems to be popular.”