Joe Manchin: the conservative Democrat with leverage in a split Senate

Daniel Strauss
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

There’s a meme going around concerning Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. It shows a futuristic city of gleaming skyscrapers and flying cars and an accompanying caption that reads something like: “West Virginia after Manchin has used all the leverage he has in the next Congress.”

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In other words, people expect Manchin, one of the most conservative Democrats in the federal government, to wield power like never before thanks to the 50-50 split in the Senate left by Democrats’ double win in the Georgia runoff races.

Manchin, a three-term senator and former governor of West Virginia, is the most well-known of a set of moderate Republicans and Democrats who can decide whether to slow down legislation to a crawl or open a pathway to it becoming law.

“There is going to be an important role for him to play as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat regardless of who won control of the Senate,” said Nick Rahall, a former Democratic congressman from West Virginia.

Democrats have the slimmest of majorities in the Senate. The divide is Democrats control 50 seats and Republicans control 50 seats, which means when Kamala Harris becomes vice-president and her replacement, Alex Padilla of California, is sworn in as senator, Harris will be the tie-breaking vote.

That slim majority can only go so far, though. Lawmakers need 60 votes for all legislation except reconciliation bills, which are annual and meant for tax and spending bills only. But all nominations before the Senate go strictly on a majority vote.

There is going to be an important role for him to play as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat regardless of who won control of the Senate

Nick Rahall

Still, Manchin’s reputation as being as right-leaning a Democrat as possible right now means that his support or opposition can provide cover to other lawmakers who also might want to influence Biden’s agenda. Manchin also maintains public friendships across the political spectrum. In an age where bipartisanship is rare, Manchin endorsed Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican, ahead of her re-election campaign. Collins then beat her Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, in an upset.

Manchin is part of a dying breed of Democrats out of West Virginia. He is the only statewide elected Democrat in the increasingly conservative-leaning red state. A Democratic presidential candidate has not won the state in over two decades and Donald Trump beat Joe Biden there by almost 40% of the vote.

Manchin’s roots in West Virginia are deep. He grew up in coal country, one of five children and rose through the state’s politics first through the West Virginia house of delegates, then the state senate, then the secretary of state’s office, then the governor’s mansion, then the Senate.

A supporter holds a Manchin sign in Charleston, West Virginia, on 6 November.
A supporter holds a Manchin sign in Charleston, West Virginia, on 6 November. Photograph: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Nick Casey, a former chief of staff to the West Virginia governor, Jim Justice, said Manchin’s political career has been characterized by making decisions based on “what he thought were in the absolute interest of the people of West Virginia or the people of West Virginia and the people of the United States”.

“He’s always been responsible, moderate and I don’t think ideologically driven at all,” Casey said.

Manchin is the perfect example of a red state politician who styles himself as a different kind of Democrat in a party where the progressive wing can often generate eye-catching headlines.

In 2010 Manchin aired a campaign ad in which he literally shot the text of a cap-and-trade bill while vowing to oppose certain parts of then-president Barack Obama’s signature Obamacare bill. In a sign of how important the landmark healthcare bill became to all corners of the Democratic party in 2018, during his second regular Senate re-election campaign, the West Virginia senator this time shot an anti-Obamacare lawsuit.

More recently, Manchin has reinforced his trademark conservative Democrat identity by keeping some wiggle room on $2,000 stimulus checks to Americans making $75,000 or less. Manchin’s murkiness has spurred Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the liberal congresswoman from New York, to set up a political action committee to embrace $2,000 checks.

“The Pac – No Excuses Pac – is intended to defend the Democratic agenda of Joe Biden, the Build Back Better plan, from the fringes of the Democratic party like Joe Manchin,” said Corbin Trent, the co-founder of the Pac. “Make no mistake, he is the fringes of the Democratic party.”

Another potential flashpoint for Manchin in the months ahead concerns the Senate committee on energy and natural resources, where Manchin is the ranking member and poised to become chairman when Democrats regain the Senate majority.

Even with a Democratic president prioritizing climate change Manchin is poised to split with other members of his party on the climate crisis and the gas industry. In a headline Inside Climate News wrote of Manchin “The Senate’s New Point Man on Climate Has Been the Democrats’ Most Fossil Fuel-Friendly Senator”.

Make no mistake, he is the fringes of the Democratic party

Corbin Trent

Manchin is one of a handful of centrist senators from both parties expected to take center sage during major policy debates over the next few years: Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona, the Rev Rafael Warnock of Georgia, Angus King and Susan Collins of Maine, Jon Tester of Montana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

“I think Joe Manchin will be a part of the influence on critical decisions but I think it will be a group of moderates that talk to each other on a regular basis,” said the former senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana. “The fact that Susan Collins is a Republican and Joe Manchin is a Democrat, those are party titles. It doesn’t in any way reflect the relationships that have developed in the Senate over the years. People like Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema – other people who are fairly moderate in her views – have developed real friendships.”