BECKLEY, W.Va. — Fifteen minutes late, Sen. Joe Manchin burst into the county library here and began working a conference room full of local business leaders and elected officials, many of whom he knew by name.
The crowd gathered last week for an event billed as an economic roundtable, but their junior senator opened with a laundry list of issues: coal, Obamacare, taxes and spending, student loans, immigration and then, dead last, perhaps the toughest issue he's faced in his young tenure.
"Guns, I don't need to tell you about guns," Manchin said, getting a knowing laugh from the friendly crowd of about three dozen.
Manchin's push earlier this year to expand background checks on gun sales was widely known, thanks in part to the National Rifle Association. In June, the NRA spent $100,000 airing an ad slamming Manchin for working with President Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on their "gun-control agenda." Manchin, a lifelong NRA member, punched back, with his own $100,000 ad buy defending his position. And last month, the NRA countered by sending letters critical of Manchin to 200,000 West Virginians.
So it's no surprise that Manchin took a few minutes to defend his failed attempt to expand background checks. "Let me ask you this point-blank," Manchin said to the crowd. "Do you think it's unreasonable if you went to a gun show or online that there'd be a background check? That's all we're talking about."
Everywhere he goes, Manchin paints his proposal as a simple fix to close loopholes that allow some some gun-show and Internet buyers to avoid background checks. It's an attempt to better keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. It's not a government gun grab. In fact, he argues, his plan would strengthen gun rights.
Still, Manchin knew, in a culture as steeped in guns as the Mountain State, he was going to pay a price for pushing any increased gun control.
"You think I didn't know that when I looked at the background-check bill that it wasn't going to be as hot as anything can possibly (be) in my state?" Manchin told the room. "You think politically that was a smart move for me? Not at all. It was a stupid move, politically."
There's no doubt that West Virginia's politics are much tougher for a Democrat like Manchin than they used to be. Consider this: In 1996, Democrat Bill Clinton won 51.5 percent of the state's vote on his way to winning a second presidential term. Last year, Republican Mitt Romney's losing presidential bid took home more than 60 percent of the vote. Obama did not win a single county in West Virginia.
That Manchin's admission came in Raleigh County was particularly fitting. Long a Democratic stronghold, the county has fast become GOP territory. The most striking example is Nick Rahall. The Democratic congressman, who has served for more than 30 years in the House, hasn't won the county where he was born in five years.
The dynamic is driven by a cynicism and distrust of government fueled by a sense of hopelessness among voters that their leaders are not charting a future that will give their children better lives, some analysts say. One veteran political consultant said that in more than 30 years of doing West Virginia focus groups, voters have never been so disillusioned with politicians, yet so hungry for someone to show them a better way forward.
Instead, most of the political debate centers around making government less intrusive and burdensome. Lane Bailey, a former longtime senior staffer to former West Virginia Gov. and current Sen. Jay Rockefeller, put it this way, "It's becoming a red state because Republicans articulate those new set of values better than Democrats do."
So it's not surprising then that Manchin is doing a lot of explaining these days. He is constantly reminding people that he's not a "Washington Democrat." He's Joe, the popular two-term governor and lifelong West Virginian, who, if he talks to you long enough, will probably find someone in your family tree—maybe a cousin or an uncle—whom he knows.
But the independent streak he cultivates so carefully has gotten him into a few political scraps, and not just with the gun lobby. In 2011, Manchin helped kill a proposal to defund Planned Parenthood, drawing the ire of West Virginians for Life, which endorsed his primary opponent last year. Manchin explained the vote by saying that federal law already prohibits abortion funding, and defunding the organization would hurt women's access to health care.
Sure, Manchin's angered two constituencies that even he acknowledges are politically important. But his message to voters seems to be, "Hey, I'm Joe, you know me."
"There's enough people in the pro-life movement that know I'm pro-life. There's enough people in the gun movement that know I will protect your Second Amendment rights," he said in an interview in his Senate office. "But also they have to know that Joe won't just roll and kowtow."
Whether it's special interests or party bosses, Manchin spends a lot of time reminding his constituents that he's not beholden. He's constantly giving political-geography lessons where his GPS puts him squarely in the middle, working to bring Democrats and Republicans together on the big issues of the day.
And he's had some success. After student-loan rates rose this summer, Manchin was a key negotiator in a deal that brought the rates back down and tied them to the market. He said he got involved after Senate Democratic leadership presented a doomed plan to temporarily extend lower rates.
"You want me to vote for the extension. You know it's going to fail but you just want to make a political point with the extension like we're trying to keep the rates down. And I said … I know that we can do so much better, we can reduce everybody's rates."
The deal that passed and was signed into law brought rates down for undergraduates from 6.8 percent to 3.9 percent.
Indeed, Manchin is drawn to the deal. Often impatient with the plodding pace of the Senate, the 65-year-old likes high-profile issues that tend to produce action.
"Manchin doesn't want to fall in line, he wants to do his own thing," said a source who has worked closely with the senator. "It's really hard to get him to execute an agenda that's very systematic. The reason he does these things like cutting deals with Republicans is because they're more willing to meet him where he is."
The way Manchin describes it, to get things done, leaders have to create a comfort zone for their opposition and try to avoid putting them at a political disadvantage—and that's essentially the exact opposite of how Congress works these days.
"They're trying to basically beat the shit out of each other. I don't subscribe to that," Manchin said of the Democratic and Republican Senate leaders, adding that neither side gets results that are very good.
But back in Beckley, not everyone's buying what Manchin is selling. Glenn Bragg is the kind of guy who should worry Manchinites. The 57-year-old Republican said he supported Manchin twice for governor and in the 2010 election to fill the late Robert Byrd's Senate seat. But last year, Bragg voted against sending Manchin back to Washington.
"Right now, it seems like he's done a 360. He's been pushing for gun control and all that," the gun-owning Baptist minister said. "He went more to appease those around him, not the people he was representing."
Manchin's gun-control explanation hasn't swayed the Beckley native. "People who want guns are gonna get guns. Don't make laws that make it harder for the gun owners who are trying to be legal," he said.
If he met Manchin, Bragg said, "I'd ask him what was his deal. Why'd he turn on the people?"
Of course, not everyone is dismayed with Manchin's gun control push. At the state fair in Fairlealast week, Ellen Friend bounded up to the senator. "I wanna thank you for all the work you've done on background checks," the 60-year-old told Manchin. "I don't think anybody is gonna come to my door and take my guns."
Still, Friend, a gun-owning Democrat toting voter-registration cards in her bag, said she's worried that his stance on guns will cost him politically.
For his part, Manchin seems undeterred. He said he's going to defend his position and continue looking for a way to expand gun-sale background checks.
As he walked back to his car, with an afternoon at the state fair in the books, Manchin talked about how important it is to meet people on their turf. West Virginians, he said, "shake your hand, look into your eyes, and see into your soul. They have to. It's survival in some tough territories. You can't bullshit them."
It takes sincere effort, he said. "Are you connecting? Do they think you're still real or do they think you're someone else?"
That question, more than any other, seems to be the one defining Manchin's early years in Washington. And the answer will likely determine how long he stays.