Sen. Manchin knew this day would eventually come. Following the 2016 elections where West Virginians voted for Donald Trump by a margin of almost 42 points over Hillary Clinton, the Democrat senator could have guessed serious GOP contenders would line up to challenge him.
That first serious challenger has finally made it official. Rep. Evan Jenkins announced his intention to unseat Sen. Manchin in 2018.
There are several factors that make the West Virginia race one of the most interesting to watch for this midterm election.
West Virginia, once upon a time, was a reliably blue bastion. The Mountain State voted Democrat in the majority of presidential contests for decades. The legislature was overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats. The party also made up its entire congressional delegation in the late 90’s.
However, George W. Bush’s campaign strategists saw an opportunity there and shocked the country by winning the state in the 2000 election.
West Virginia has been turning red ever since.
Besides voting for every Republican presidential candidate since 2000, the state now boasts an entire Republican House delegation and GOP control of both legislative chambers. Manchin’s Senate colleague, Shelley Moore Capito, was the first Republican senator to be elected there since 1958.
In West Virginia, coal is king. The union workers who make up the industry fell out of love with a modern Democratic Party that has turned to stricter environmental regulations and green energy – policies that chipped away at coal jobs. These same coal workers came to embrace the GOP.
What makes Sen. Manchin’s career unique is that he’s held elected office throughout West Virginia’s partisan transformation. First elected to the House of Delegates in 1982, Manchin went on to serve in the state Senate, as secretary of state, governor and now senator. He’s held office for 35 years and his constituents clearly approve of the job he’s doing.
Having been a fixture of West Virginia politics for so long, Manchin carries heavy name recognition. The incumbent senator is also not your typical Democrat. He is very pro-Second Amendment, pro-life and an unabashed supporter of the coal industry. Many have openly speculated over the years whether Manchin would switch parties.
Due to his legacy and conservative cred, Manchin has had no issues getting re-elected over the years. While West Virginia voters chose Mitt Romney over Obama 62 to 25 percent, they still handily picked Manchin over his Republican rival – giving him 60 percent of the vote in 2012.
Six years later, however, things could be different this time. West Virginia went for Donald Trump by shockingly wide margins. The president won with almost 70 percent of the vote. Hillary Clinton, who was filmed on the campaign trail saying she wanted to put coal miners out of work, received 26 percent of the vote in 2016.
These are astonishing numbers, sure, but are they indicative of complete party loyalty? Not quite.
On the same ballot in 2016, West Virginia voters chose Democrat Jim Justice for governor over Republican Bill Cole (the former president of the state Senate) by a fairly wide margin: 49 to 42 percent.
Another major detail that needs to be pointed out: Joe Manchin is no Hillary Clinton.
The Blue Dog Democrat has for a long time lured conservative voters into his camp with his popular gun ads and patriotic rhetoric. Despite whatever partisan environment his state is in, he knows how to speak to his constituents.
Rep. Evan Jenkins certainly has his work cut out for him, but he seems ready to rumble. The Republican congressman raised $368,000 in the first quarter of this year. He now sits on a $1 million campaign war chest. Not a bad start in a state that is historically known for having a cheap t.v. ad market.
Jenkins will have some competition before he can have a shot at the general election. Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey will most likely enter the race in the coming days. His allies have already begun a super PAC that will back his candidacy, should he enter.
The race in West Virginia will prove pivotal in the midterms next year. Senate Democrats, however energized they may appear now, are facing a daunting map this go-around. The vast majority of senators up for re-election are Democrats, putting them on the defensive. Ten of them are up for election in a state President Trump carried.
Can Republicans keep gaining in a state that is leaning more and more their way, or will Manchin’s historic legacy and moderate bona fides prove too much come Election Day?
Campaign Daily Rating: Likely Democrat