West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin is not only in the midst of a difficult re-election campaign, he’s also a key player in the high-stakes battle over who will replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court.

Republicans hold a narrow 51-49 advantage in the Senate and the President could lose one or two moderate Republicans depending upon who is nominated, so he’s already working on trying to shore up a couple of Democratic votes. Manchin was among several key swing vote senators called to the White House last week for a one-on-one meeting with the President. Manchin said he met with the President and two of his aides for a half-hour.

Manchin said Trump asked him what kind of person he would like to see on the Court.  “I said I’d like to see someone who is a centrist.  You give me a constitutionalist that believes in the rule of law and is centrist and moderate,” Manchin said he told Trump.

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U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

That “centrist” theme came up again and again during my interview with Manchin, which prompted questions about abortion.  Conservatives badly want Trump to pick a justice who will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Manchin says he is pro-life, but he has lost favor with pro-life organizations. West Virginians for Life endorsed Manchin’s Republican opponent, Patrick Morrisey, in the Primary and will likely back him again in November.

Manchin predicts Trump’s choice will face an even more difficult confirmation if they have a goal of outlawing abortion. “I’m pro life, but I know how (abortion) divides our country,” he said. “If he picks somebody that’s hard core on Roe v. Wade or that’s hard core on repealing health care (Affordable Care Act), that’s a bigger lift.”

The Senator said, “Roe v. Wade has been the law for forty-some years.  If a nominee is openly in support of overturning Roe v. Wade, that’s a red flag.”

Manchin said Trump did not directly ask him to support his choice and the Senator did not commit to backing the nominee. “I told him I would evaluate the person he puts up and I’ll be an honest broker and tell him what I think.”

Manchin was one of just three Democrats who split with their party to support Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia. The other two were Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. The common theme is that Trump won all three of those states easily in 2016.

Trump remains popular in West Virginia.  A survey by Public Policy Polling released last month found that 64 percent of state voters approve of the job Trump is doing.  Manchin knows how important it is to stay in Trump’s favor.

Trump has ripped Manchin for opposing the tax bill.  “He votes against everything and voted against our tax cut, and he does other things that I don’t like,” the President said during a roundtable in West Virginia. FiveThirtyEight reports that Manchin has voted with Trump’s agenda 61 percent of the time, the most of any Democratic Senator.

The smart money is on Manchin backing Trump’s pick. That would mute some of the criticism by Manchin’s opponents that he does not support the President.  That’s a critical aspect of this Senate race since it’s seen by many voters as a referendum on Trump.

Additionally, Manchin has a play if Trump’s nominee has a record showing they are in favor of dismantling the Affordable Care Act. The Senator believes opposing that choice would be a political winner because key parts of Obamacare—such as mandatory, affordable coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions—are popular in West Virginia.

Meanwhile, Manchin has to worry that if the Senate’s decision on Trump’s nominee comes down to a single vote, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer will put the squeeze on him to oppose.

Manchin has worked hard to craft a middle ground in Washington, one that reflects his views and also provides a Democrat some protection in a state that has grown increasingly red.  The stand he takes on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee is yet another test of how effectively he navigates that territory.

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