Morgantown, W. Va. — Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) must soon decide if he will seek reelection from a majority Republican constituency. Manchin is no stranger to high-stakes decisions, as he often determined the life or death of President Biden’s legislative proposals, while Democrats had a razor-thin majority during the first two years of Biden’s administration.
Heading into 2024, Manchin has several choices: pursue another term as a Democrat, switch his party affiliation, resign to the hills of West Virginia or even make a run for the presidency.
Video by Logan Schiciano/MNS
Deviating from his Democratic identity
When asked if he was still a Democrat in an interview earlier this month, Manchin said that he identified as American. His answer reflected the rebellious and unpredictable approach he has taken to caucusing with the Democrats. With a 50-50 Senate from Jan. 2021 to Jan. 2023, Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) relied on Manchin’s support to pass any of the Democratic legislative agenda. The Senator engendered frustration for not following his party’s wishes, despite pressure from Schumer and President Biden.
Manchin’s actions had consequences among some Democrats in West Virginia who once supported him, but now felt he had left them behind. Steward Acuff, a retired labor organizer with AFL-CIO and life-long Democratic voter, knocked on doors for Manchin during his first reelection campaign in 2018.
“Joe Manchin won as a Democrat, with the work of a heck of a lot of progressive Democrats. The base has always carried him,” Acuff said over breakfast in a Shepherdstown deli. “Which is why we get so angry when we see him speaking against us, voting against us and weakening the Democratic party.”
Manchin’s controversial political fluidity has opened the door to mass media attention. Ego may be the primary motivation for flip-flopping his votes across party lines, said John Kilwein, West Virginia University professor of political science.
“When the Senate was divided, he was the belle of the ball. Everyone wanted to talk about him. He was the critical guy,” said Kilwein. “It’s about staying prominent in the national headlines.”
Since 2018, Manchin has been an obstacle to his party’s push for action on climate change, voting rights legislation and filibuster reform. In Dec. 2021, he sank Biden’s proposed Build Back Better legislation, which would have lowered health care costs, provided universal pre-school, instituted paid family leave and triggered the largest investment in combating climate change in U.S. history.
West Virginia is the fourth poorest state in the country. For Manchin to oppose Build Back Better “weakens the democratic party,” according to Acuff, while making the lives of West Vriginians harder.
“There’s no state that has more to gain in terms of building the internal economy than West Virginia,” he said.
Anitra Hamilton, president of the NAACP in West Virginia University’s city of Morgantown, also described Manchin’s opposition to Build Back Better as a blow to “a state that needs so much attention, care and support.”
Hamilton went to West Virginia University and now works in the University’s hospital, as well as at the polls on election day. She said that Manchin has failed to show up for the “ordinary people” of the state, particularly minority communities.
On Friday, the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign held a rally outside of the State Capitol to bring attention to over 100 unexplained deaths in state jails, 13 of which occurred at the Southern Regional jail this past year. Ralliers, including Acuff, demanded Manchin join them in calling for a full federal investigation into prison conditions. Manchin’s office responded that the Senator “continues to monitor the reports coming from the state-operated Southern Regional Jail.”
“These are the situations when we need to hear from our leaders. He could connect with hurting families, people who have voted for him, to say I hear you, I’m with you and we need to find out what’s going on,” said Hamilton. “We’re asking for an investigation into what’s going on in our institutions so that we can thrive, as well as the coal industry has.”
A culture running on coal
As the second largest coal-producing state in the country, West Virginia is heavily reliant on the mining, exportation and use of coal.
“The state is still strongly connected, economically and culturally, to fossil fuels extraction,” Kilwein explained.
Rick Altman, Vice President of United Mine Workers of America district 31 in Fairmont, said that people outside of West Virginia don’t understand the depth of that connection.
“It’s not just good paying jobs with benefits, health care and pensions. Our dollar goes to help so many other people and communities,” he said. “But if you take those taxes away that the [coal] companies pay, you are going to lose cities and towns in West Virginia, and you’re going to lose that culture. You don’t have to be a coal miner to appreciate the impact we have on this state.”
Both the state and the Senator have a long standing relationship with coal. Manchin’s family owns a coal business, Enersystems Inc. in Fairmont, W.Va. Manchin has holdings between $1 million and $5 million in Enersystems, Inc., according to his 2021 financial disclosure form. As Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Manchin holds immense power over energy issues, and has not been shy to obstruct propositions he felt endangered the coal industry. In addition to Build Back Better, he blocked Biden’s 2021 plan for a $150 billion plan to cut reliance on fossil fuels among power generators.
Although Build Back Better offered significant support for unions, Altman said that you can’t “get everything on your wishlist,” and that overall, Manchin has been an instrumental ally to mineworkers. He described the coal union as a chain of individuals linked together to protect each other, of which Manchin is a key part.
“Senator Manchin has always been a link in that chain. A strong link,” said Altman. “Mineworkers could not ask for a better advocate. Hopefully he’s around for another hundred years.”
Hamilton, whose father was a coal miner, viewed Manchin’s prioritization of the fossil fuel industry with less affection.
“Of course when it comes to coal, he would be part of the family because they fund his campaign. That’s the bread and butter of his family,” she said. “For the coal industry, he has shown up greatly, but I don’t think many other people can use those terms of endearment.”
As for the future of fossil fuels in West Virginia, Altman said that he expected coal to phase out, but not in the near future.
“I think [Manchin] understands that technology is starting to move. And I think he believes there’s always gonna be a place for coal. But there’s also new technologies where coal can be used.”
Acuff disagreed, instead calling for an embrace of clean energy and praising potential job opportunities in the creation and management of solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams and offshore energy generation.
To run or not to run… and for what?
In his 2024 reelection campaign, should he choose to run, Manchin already has opposition from across the aisle. Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) announced his candidacy last year, and Republican Gov. Jim Justice is expected to announce his candidacy in coming weeks. Campaigning as a Democrat in a state in which former President Donald Trump won nearly 70% of the vote in 2020 may prove more difficult than Manchin’s previous races.
“The state has moved to the right. In the process, he needs every democratic vote he can get. And in these past two or three years he’s alienated portions of that democratic base,” said Kilwein.
Hamilton, who identified herself as part of that base, said she doesn’t want to vote for Manchin, but sitting out would be “a vote for the other side.”
“If Joe Manchin loses, it could be a whole generation before a Democrat represents West Virginia again, so it puts us in a precarious situation,” said Hamilton.
Victory for Manchin is within reach, if the choice for Democrats is him or a “MAGA Republican,” according to Kilwein. How he’s gotten this far in the conservative state, Kilwein said, is based on his “personal name brand.”
“I think at the end of the day, a lot of core democratic institutions are gonna do what they did in 2018. They’re gonna hold their nose and vote [for Manchin],” said Kilwein.
Should Manchin choose to run for president, which he did not rule out in an interview earlier this month, it might double as a retirement plan, said Acuff.
“Being a democrat has become harder and harder for him to sustain. [Running for president] would be a way out for him to retire and save face and not be defeated in his state.”
Regardless of Manchin’s next political move, his legacy extends beyond political office for those in the world of coal who support him, such as Altman.
“West Virginians see him differently because he’s less of a politician and more of Joe Manchin,” said Altman. “Joe Manchin. Not senator, not governor but he is just Joe Manchin. He’s ours.”