Manchin argued throughout his last reelection campaign that it was his upbringing in the small Appalachian town set on the banks of Buffalo Creek — from working at his family’s local grocery store to watching how relationships in his hometown transcended political lines — that helped make him a politician who would listen to even his most ardent detractors and use his power to make sure every bipartisan avenue was exhausted before he picked the best option for the people of his state.
That persona has served Manchin well, to date. He’s survived election after election in this increasingly Republican bastion to become the most conservative Democrat in an evenly divided Senate — a role that allows him to put his stamp on anything his party wants to accomplish, which includes just about everything these days. Manchin has wielded this influence to change the coronavirus relief package, force Democrats to try and work with Republicans on infrastructure and squash any talk of getting rid of Senate rules that would make it easier for the Democrats, currently in the majority, to pass President Joe Biden’s agenda.
But back home, Manchin is facing a set of opposing forces. Republicans in the state, loyal to former President Donald Trump and consumed with the partisan politics of the moment, have grown annoyed at how Manchin signals a willingness to break with Democrats but often votes with the party in the end. And many Democrats in the state, worn down by years of Republican domination, worry that Manchin’s undying focus on bipartisanship is no longer possible when the Republican Party is unwilling to meet in the middle.
This tension has forced the tenets of Manchin’s personal and political story to run up against a changing world.
Farmington, the town that made Manchin, has fallen on hard times in recent years, struggling to hold on to population as jobs have moved elsewhere and local businesses have shuttered. And Manchin’s brand of bipartisan politics, one partially informed by the mentorship he enjoyed from the late Sen. Robert Byrd, is that of a bygone era, as partisan politics and party line votes take hold everywhere from Washington to the state capital of Charleston.
Conversations with more than 15 West Virginians a day after Manchin told CNN he has no intention of changing his approach, revealed both a deep respect for Manchin’s desire for bipartisanship and a growing impatience that questioned whether such agreement was possible any longer.
“As much as I appreciate Joe’s ideal — maybe that is where his heart is at and maybe that is because of his roots — there has to come a time when you have to realize (Republicans) are not going to sit down and hold hands and sing kumbaya,” said Donna Costello, the former mayor of Manchin’s hometown and a longtime friend of the Manchin family. “And you have to do what is in the best interest of what put you there.”
Manchin, 73, is now the only Democrat holding statewide office in West Virginia. Top Democrats in the state know if he were not in his Senate seat, a Republican invariably would be. And plenty of voters, including those who voted for Trump multiple times, are proud that their senator, even though he is a Democrat, is willing to try and make bipartisanship work.
“You have to meet somewhere in the middle,” said John Ross, a Marion County voter who worked at the Manchin family’s carpet store in the 1980s. Ross voted for former President Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020, but during Manchin’s 2018 reelection campaign, he backed his old friend. “You have to be able to have a common goal — what’s in the best interest of our country and use common sense.”
But as Republican election officials nationwide have hardened toward working with Democrats, so have West Virginians who, like the state, have moved to the right in recent years and, looking at their own transformation, would like their Democratic senator to do the same.
“I am not a tremendous fan just because he doesn’t know which way he is playing,” said Lucinda Powell, a former Democrat and bail bonds manager in Fairmont. “One minute he goes with the Democrats, one minute he goes with the Republicans. Pick a side and go with it.”
‘The middle ground could be found’
Manchin’s upbringing centered on understanding and hard work.
For a long time in the state, it was Republicans, not Democrats, who needed to find political friends on the left to get anything done. And as Manchin rose through local politics, first as a member of the House of Delegates, then as a state senator, secretary of state and finally governor, Manchin was known for including Republicans in negotiations, even if Democrats enjoyed sizable majorities in the state.
“He told me one time, I will never forget, if you have an issue where you cannot get one vote to go with you from the other party, regardless of who is in the majority … it is probably a bad idea,” recalled Mike Caputo, a Democratic state senator in West Virginia who served as majority whip in the House of Delegates during Manchin’s time as governor.
He added: “Joe has always been the kind of guy that has always believed you can find common ground if you work hard enough. I know when he was governor, we had major disagreements, but he always believed that if we talked long enough and both sides wanted to find a resolution, the middle ground could be found.”
Manchin signaled this position remains inside him in an interview on Thursday, telling CNN’s Manu Raju that he was not ready to get rid of the Senate legislative filibuster, a move that would allow Democrats to do more without Republican support.
“We’re going to make the place work, and you can’t make it work unless the minority has input,” Manchin said, defending the filibuster. “You can’t disregard a person that’s not in the majority, the Senate was never designed that way.”
Small town roots inform bipartisan focus
It is impossible to miss Manchin’s connections to his hometown.
As you get closer to the village, the Manchin name begins to appear everywhere. The local clinic bears his family’s name, there are signs heading into town that proclaim Farmington the “Home of Joe Manchin III” and there is even a throwback sign that recalls the days when Manchin’s grandfather, affectionately known as Papa Joe, ran a grocery store in the community.
Manchin lived an idyllic life in town. He grew up helping in the family’s grocery business and played quarterback at the local high school, eventually earning a football scholarship to West Virginia University before an injury cut short his athletic career. His high school yearbook described him as “Athletics come natural.” And a full page in the yearbook blared, “What Will We Do In Track Without Joe?”
Members of the extended Manchin family still call the town home, including the senator’s sister, who lives in the brick house that the family grew up in close to the creek.
But the town that shaped Manchin changed years ago, people in the community say. As coal production in West Virginia began to fall, so did the coal mining jobs, the local businesses and the grocery stores that went with it. The town, with a population of roughly 400 people, is now a shell of its former self. A bright bakery anchors the main road through town, along with a Family Dollar — the replacement to the multiple local grocery stores the town once enjoyed — and a health clinic bearing Manchin’s name.
But the lessons imparted on Manchin, helping neighbors whether you agree with them politically or not, endure within the senator.
Theresa Witt, Manchin’s cousin, recalls how the senator’s grandparents baked bread every weekend for all the families in the small town and often sent food from their grocery store to the families of laid off coal miners.
And when tragedy struck the area and affected his family, that stayed with him, too.
One of Manchin’s uncles died in the Farmington Mine disaster, a 1968 explosion that killed 78 miners. The disaster shook the community and helped lawmakers in the state pass a number of laws to protect miners. Decades later, as governor, Manchin found himself at the center of numerous fights over coal, including more mining disasters.
“When there was a coal mine disaster while he was governor, I watched it and I saw so many things in Joe then that I always knew,” Witt recalled, growing emotional as she remembers the miners. “I said to Joe, I saw every one of our ancestors when I watched you help all those people. And it was such a tragedy that those men were trapped, and then we thought they were alive, and then one came out alive. It was really heartfelt. It was sincere.”
Standing on the porch of Manchin’s childhood home, Witt spoke about how Manchin’s process for making decisions comes straight back to where he was raised.
“When a bill is introduced to Joe… he thinks about his parents. And what would his parents think, if they would be proud of the way he’s voting this way,” she said. “And I know that a couple times people have said to me, ‘Why is Joe voting like this?’ or ‘Why is Joe voting like that?’ and I would ask Joe, and he would say, tell them to call me and I’ll explain it. Because sometimes in bills there’s some things that aren’t as pleasing to people’s beliefs in our community but if there’s more good in it than bad then Joe always says we can work on the bad. But we need to work together to try to get some things taken care of.”
As central as coal has been in Manchin’s story, the industry also sped up his state’s political shift. While West Virginia Democrats have always been more conservative, many Democrats believe the state’s political shift began in 2000, when Vice President Al Gore made comments about coal and climate change that rankled miners and worried the industry, allowing then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush to win the state and eventually the presidency.
The shift has been evident in every presidential election since. In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton carried the state by nearly 15 percentage points. Twenty-four years later, Trump won it by nearly 39 percentage points, the second largest margin for the Republican president in any state.
West Virginia has grown so ruby red that multiple elected Democrats, including the state’s governor, have switched parties to hold on to their political futures.
Manchin has remained a Democrat and, so far, has survived the transformation.
But the real shift has been felt on the local level, where a huge swath of municipal, county and state offices have become nearly impossible for Democrats to win, despite dominating them just years earlier.
The shift and Manchin’s survival have led Democrats in West Virginia to believe one truth: If Manchin was not their senator, that seat would undoubtedly be held by a Republican.
“It wouldn’t be a Democrat, not in these times,” said Caputo. “And it really pains me to say that. It really does. I am a strong believer in Democratic values and a proud member of the party, but I just have to be realistic here. That is why it is a little hard to get mad at Joe when he doesn’t do everything you want.”
A political unicorn
Manchin’s political positioning — often voting with Democrats but refusing to go along with the party on key issues — has rankled countless national Democrats, many of whom accuse the senator of standing in the way of needed legislation all to preserve his own political power. At best, in the eyes of these Democrats, Manchin is solely representing the views of his politically changing state. At worse, they believe, he is a politician bent on being the most important man in the Senate.
But Manchin is as savvy a political operator as he is a political unicorn. Where the West Virginia Democrat’s one-time colleagues from states like Nebraska, Arkansas and South Dakota have long ago lost their seats, Manchin has held on.
“He is acting upon what he believes his constituents want and so I know a lot of national Democrats may be upset with him that he is working across party lines, but that’s what we should be doing in politics,” said Michael Angelucci, a former West Virginia delegate who, as a Democrat, was elected to represent Farmington and the surrounding area in 2018 but lost reelection in 2020. “We should be able to work together. There are people of both parties that get frustrated because they’re either too far left or too far right. And we need to come together, learn how to work together, and that’s what Joe does.”
The ability to survive in West Virginia has even impressed some Republicans, like West Virginia auditor John B. McCuskey, a Republican whose family has known the Manchins for decades and who linked Manchin’s abilities with the state’s other senator, Republican Shelley Moore Capito.
“For me, when you have Manchin and Capito as the two people who are representing our state in Washington, what you are really doing is showing the rest of the country that results-based politics still plays,” said McCuskey. “And when you put your state and your district as your guiding principles, it enables you to legislate more effectively.”
Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the state attribute Manchin’s longevity to a mix of good fortune — he has faced less-than-stellar challengers in recent years — and deep ties to the people who elect him, along with an uncanny knack for making people who are angry with him warm up.
People close to Manchin have seen this ability in action — and say his belief that he can win over people if they all get in a room together defines his current positioning in the Senate.
Belinda Biafore, the chair of the West Virginia Democratic Party who has been involved with all of Manchin’s campaigns since the 1980s, said every time he refuses to go along with a key Democratic tenet, she would often get an earful from activists and have to relay that to the senator.
“Often times some of the members of the committee, or just activists, would come to me and want to complain about the senator,” Biafore recalled. When the pressure got too much, she would schedule a meeting with Manchin so that the senator could hear out his detractors.
“(He) came in with a box of doughnuts, got some coffee, went around the room, shook hands, kissed folks on the cheek, gave them a hug and then he started the meeting,” she recalled.
“He gave them this big speech about what was going on, what he was doing. He said you all have any questions. Silence. So, as he left the room, they wanted pictures taken with him, they wanted another hug on his way out the door. And then we got out into the hallway, and he said, ‘I thought you said they were mad at me.'”