It’s impossible to imagine now, but it wasn’t that long ago that West Virginia was a deep-blue Democratic stronghold.
Out of the 121 terms for statewide office that have been regularly elected since 1932, only seven were lost by Democrats, and three of those seven were won by the same person, Republican Arch A. Moore Jr. From 1930 to 2014, Democrats held continuous majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. The history of dominance was also evidence in their congressional delegations. Between the 1932 and 1990s, the state only elected two Republicans to the U.S. Senate, the most recent of those being in 1956, and out of the 168 cumulative House seats up for election, Republicans won just 23 times (six of which were Moore Jr.).
Compare that to today, in which the Democratic Party controls just one statewide executive office, the State Treasurer, after Gov. Jim Justice switched parties to become a Republican last month. They also are in the minority in both chambers of the state legislature. And of their five-member Congressional delegation, just one—Sen. Joe Manchin—is a Democrat.
In many ways, Manchin is the last vestige of hope for Democrats have in a state they once monopolized, and yet many in the party show him nothing but contempt.
“Manchin consistently votes against the core principles and values of the Democratic party’s progressive base,” reads a petition urging Schumer to remove Manchin from Senate leadership that’s been circulated by a coalition of liberal organizations.”
Removing Manchin from party leadership is actually a tame punishment considering the Bernie Sanders wing of the party is actually calling for his scalp, a warning to any Democrat who is considering following his centrist lead.
“I don’t think people like him should be in the party because frankly they should never have been in the party. They’re Republicans,” Nomiki Konst, a former Sanders delegate to the Democratic National convention and a member of the DNC unity reform commission, said in an interview. “This is not about purity politics. This is a man who is sucking the resources of the Democratic Party, while voting with Trump. I don’t think anything Manchin does is going to win us voters that we need to win back. My question to Democrats is what is he actually doing for us?”
The short answer to that question is that Manchin, as Democrats’ token advocate for blue collar workers, is attempting to teach the party how to speak to rural voters. The Week’s Bonnie Kristian reported in January:
Still reeling from their 2016 losses but already looking ahead to 2018, 10 Senate Democrats who are facing election contests in states that voted for President Trump gathered in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on Thursday to learn how to effectively market themselves to “real people.”
Prominent on the day’s agenda is a “discussion with Trump voters” session moderated by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who is among those 10 Democratic senators prepping for a difficult re-election campaign. Other sessions have titles like “Speaking to those who feel invisible in rural America,” “Listening to those feel unheard,” and “Rising America — They feel unheard too.”
Inevitably, using Manchin as a rural voter whisperer—the lone member of the party who can teach them how to talk to “real people”—is a model doomed to fail. But Manchin offers something bigger than that – a daily reminder in meetings, caucuses and strategy sessions of how Democrats are failing blue collar America. Clare Foran explains in The Atlantic:
Sanders, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren, acts as a barometer for the party’s progressive wing, while Manchin helps Democrats gauge how voters outside the liberal mainstream will react to its policies and message.
“You’ll hear Chuck say, ‘Okay, we heard from Elizabeth and Bernie, let’s turn to Joe,” Manchin said, describing himself as an independent, at times oppositional, voice on the leadership team. “Chuck will say, ‘Joe, what do you think?’, and I’ll say, ‘I think this Chuck, I think you’re wrong, or I think you’re going in the wrong direction. If you go down that path, it’s wrong.’”
But Democrats don’t want to hear that they’re wrong. They want to believe that the opinions of the coastal elite, which dominate the ranks of their party’s leadership, are infallible. Until they can set aside that hubris and understand that rural voters aren’t just racist rubes, but are Americans with sincere concerns about the direction of the country, then they’ll never win West Virginia, nor the states like it.
Photo credit: Ava Lowery