Is Joe Manchin As Conservative As He Seems?

by Bradford Plumer | October 15, 2010

While it's still too early to pick the most surreal ad of the political cycle, the one where West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin grabs a rifle and starts shooting a cap-and-trade bill must rank pretty high. But hey, maybe this little authenticity twofer worked! Previous polls, after all, showed Manchin losing the WV Senate race to GOP businessman John Raese. Whereas today, a new Marshall University survey gives Manchin a ten-point lead. Maybe more struggling candidates should try blasting away at thick reams of legislative text.

But that brings up another question. If Manchin does eke this one out, what kind of Democrat will he turn out to be? Consider the record: pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage. He won praise from the Cato Institute for cutting taxes and shrinking West Virginia's budget during his tenure as governor. He hearts the coal industry and has sued the EPA over regulations on mountaintop mining. And he's even vowed to help Republicans repeal Obamacare—or at least "the bad parts." Sure, he's technically a Democrat, because you have to be to run for office in West Virginia, but from all outward appearances, we're talking about a more right-wing version of Ben Nelson.

Plenty of commentators have chalked this up to West Virginia being a conservative state, a place where Obama's popularity is clocking in the low 30s. But that's not a fully satisfying explanation. The state's Democratic senators have often been quirky and willing to adopt surprisingly strong liberal positions. Robert Byrd, after all, was a huge fan of New Deal-style federal spending and was one of the most vocal opponents of the Iraq war. The state's other senator, Jay Rockefeller spent most of his time during the health care debate staking out territory to the left of Obama.

I asked Robert Rupp, a historian at West Virginia Wesleyan College, about this disparity. His take was that West Virginia tends to strangely forgiving of its incumbents: Given that the state receives $1.76 in federal money for every $1 it pays in taxes, West Virginians understand the power of having representatives with seniority—they watched Byrd, after all, direct millions and millions of dollars worth of earmarks their way each year from his perch at the head of the appropriations committee. "That means once you're in, if you're fighting for the state, if you're in tune with us on eighty percent of the issues, then we're going to cut you some slack," says Rupp.

Does that mean that, if elected to the Senate, Manchin could evolve over time—that he might not always be the most right-wing member of the Democratic caucus? Well, anything's possible, though there aren't many signs of that now. Yes, Manchin tends to lean liberal on a few safety-net issues, given his close alliance with the mineworkers' union. And he's certainly more progressive than Raese, who wants to abolish the minimum wage. But he's no Rockefeller, either. And, Rupp notes, West Virginia has been steadily drifting rightward over the years—even if the state Republican Party is still in shambles and has to rely on the occasional ambitious wealthy businessman like Raese.

Meanwhile, one place where Manchin shows zero indication of giving ground is on coal. Yes, he may clash from time to time with Don Blankenship, the state's cartoonishly villainous coal baron, over mining-safety issues. But Manchin seems to firmly believe that the coal industry doesn't need to change or adapt to a cleaner-energy future (even if resource extraction hasn't exactly made West Virginia prosperous). That's hardly an inevitable stance. Toward the end of his life, Byrd started warning coal companies that they can't just short-sightedly fight off climate legislation for ever—and if they take that path, they're going to be massacred by looming EPA pollution rules. But Manchin rebuked Byrd at the time, and, as Dave Roberts notes, he's showed no signs that he's thought about how the industry can move forward. That bout of target practice wasn't just macho posturing—it's a pretty good summary of how Manchin actually thinks about the issue.

(Flickr photo credit: a.bonner)

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