When asked about what is expected to be a brutal 2018 re-election battle, a wide smile spread over Joe Manchin’s face. “I love campaigning,” Manchin said, showing no hint of sarcasm or falsity.
The West Virginia Democrat is a relentless retail campaigner, perhaps the best the state has seen since Arch Moore. Manchin can talk policy, but he’s hardly a wonk. His strengths are personality and likeability, which still make a difference in the minds of voters.
His 2018 re-election effort, however, will provide one of the biggest tests of his political career.
Since arriving in Washington, Manchin has sought to avoid the extreme partisanship that forces elected officials into camps with hard boundaries. The middle ground is his preferred space, which he seeks to reinforce at every opportunity.
The Great Middle, once the safe zone for many politicians, is now a political no-man’s land. The country and its leaders have migrated away from each other to areas where the ideology is more rigid and, more importantly, the generous donors abound.
The middle ground leaves Manchin with problems on his flanks. Paula Jean Swearengin, who is backed by Brand New Congress, an organization founded by former Bernie Sanders supporters, is challenging him in the Primary Election next year.
Manchin has always had issues with the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party in West Virginia, but other than his 1996 loss to Charlotte Pritt in the Democratic Primary for Governor, Manchin has been able to avoid a first round defeat.
The real challenge for Manchin will come in the General Election. Two Republicans are already in the race—3rd District Congressman Evan Jenkins and former coal miner Bo Copley, who famously confronted Hillary Clinton to explain her comments about putting coal out of business. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is also expected to enter the race.
All three are part of the conservative Republican wave that has swept over West Virginia in the last generation. The state has voted for the Republican nominee for President every election since 2000 and Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 42 points last November.
Manchin strongly supported Clinton, but he quickly embraced Trump after the election and was even briefly considered for a position within the administration. He has tried to set himself up as a potential bridge in Congress between Democrats and Republicans.
In my conversation with him last week, Manchin dismissed the expected opposition attacks linking him to Clinton, noting that opponent attempts to connect him at the hip with Barack Obama didn’t work. Those failed efforts give him confidence that his personal brand is strong enough to withstand the hyper-partisan antagonists.
“My brand is to be Joe Manchin—common sense, centrist,” he told me on Talkline last week.
The Cook Political Report agrees, rating Manchin as “likely” to hold the seat. But to do so, Manchin has to buck the trend in West Virginia, and that’s still new territory for Democrats here.