Crossing the Political Divide in West Virginia

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (right) with Brett Kavanaugh in July 2018 ( source )

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (right) with Brett Kavanaugh in July 2018 (source)

The midterm elections saw incredibly tight races, from the three percentage points separating Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz to Joe Manchin retaining his senate seat against West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey. The latter victory was a close one,  not unlike many other close Senate races this election season, except for one factor: Manchin, a Democrat, won in a state where almost 70 percent of the voting population chose Donald Trump for President in 2016. Furthermore, West Virginia voted three Republicans to the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections. Granted, Manchin is not a particularly liberal Democrat. He has been labeled “the Senate’s most conservative and Trump-friendly Democrat,” but is markedly more liberal than his opponent, Patrick Morrisey. Morrisey, a pro-Trump Republican, was projected to win the seat in many pre-election polls. Manchin edged ahead for two main reasons: the incumbency advantage and his strategic pro-Kavanaugh stance.

In West Virginia, personal connection to the culture and community matters. Born in Farmington, a town in the north of the state, Manchin has become a well-known and highly-regarded figure in West Virginia politics. At the state level, Manchin served both in the House of Delegates and Senate. He later gained more recognition as West Virginia’s Secretary of State, and was elected as governor in 2005. His tenure as senator began in November of 2010, where he has since walked the fine line between representing the views of his typically conservative state and pushing for more liberal policies such as clean energy, a bold move in a state driven by coal. Because of this experience, Manchin is now a household name in the state. The West Virginia senior senator has also stayed true to his moderate Democrat label. Perhaps because of his support for many of Trump’s policies, the president reportedly urged him to switch his party affiliation. However, Manchin has stuck with his party on issues such as healthcare and tax reform, which benefit many West Virginians. Morrisey, an out-of-stater who has spent most of his life in New Jersey, lacked the name recognition and West Virginia familiarity that Manchin possesses.

Patrick Morrisey campaigning in January of 2018 ( source )

Patrick Morrisey campaigning in January of 2018 (source)

Despite these advantages, poll projections showed Manchin and Morrisey as neck-in-neck for most of the campaign. The tipping point occurred when Manchin announced his support for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Until the beginning of October, Manchin had withheld any indication about his opinion of the Kavanaugh hearing and Kavanaugh’s accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. When the vote came, Manchin was the only Democrat to vote to support Kavanaugh. In justifying his decision, Manchin said that he didn’t vote as a Democrat in the key decision, but as a West Virginian. This response shows Manchin’s strategy: he avoids strongly “Democratic” decisions and leans toward the middle of the political spectrum to appease both his party and his constituents. Manchin was rewarded for his strategy in this midterm with a victory over Morrisey and another term in office.

Does Manchin’s reelection indicate the possible future of politics, one where people choose the candidate who best aligns with their political preferences rather than their party affiliation? Perhaps, but only time will tell.

Elizabeth MitchellComment