Joe Manchin is torn.
The popular West Virginia Democrat, sitting in the U.S. Senate since 2010, said he genuinely wants to stay there — but only if real legislating can get done between majority Republicans and minority Democrats.
If not, he said, he will explore running for the job he still loves with a passion — being the governor of the Mountain State.
“I want this to work in Washington,” he said. “That is why I am not making any final decision until summer.”
He also believes there is an advantage to being a pretty moderate guy, because he can help to get things passed: “I am in a pretty unique position, where (Republicans) are going to need six moderate Democrats to move any legislation. And if the Republicans are serious about governing, they are going to need six of me.”
The only reason to stay in Washington would be the same reason he loved being governor: “There, you can get things done, you can work with people no matter if they have a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ after their name.”
It’s been more than 10 years since Manchin first ran for governor, and nearly six since he ran for the Senate. In that short period he went from being a member of the party in power at all levels of West Virginia’s government, from local to federal, to being something of a sole survivor among state Democrats.
In November, Republicans gained control of West Virginia’s House of Delegates for the first time in more than 80 years, took the majority in the state Senate, and elected Shelley Moore Capito as the state’s first female U.S. senator and the first West Virginia Republican to hold a Senate seat in nearly 60 years.
Republicans also hold all of the state’s congressional seats for the first time since 1921.
Last week, both chambers of the state Legislature overwhelmingly rolled back Manchin’s energy law, the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act. The House voted 95-4; the Senate, 33-0.
Manchin was not pleased.
“The energy portfolio bill was really showing the rest of the country that you could reduce your emissions and be more environmentally friendly while still using the God-given resources like coal, which is abundant in West Virginia,” he said.
“The repeal was purely political.”
Over the past few decades, much of the South trended Republican, first at the presidential level, according to Kyle Kondik, a University of Virginia political analyst. In West Virginia, “That trend has now bled down to the state’s other federal and state offices,” he said.
“In 2016, one would expect the state to comfortably vote Republican at the presidential level, which presents a challenge to the gubernatorial candidate, even if it’s a Democrat with an established persona like Manchin.”
Manchin blames Barack Obama’s progressive politics for West Virginia’s switch from Democrat dominance to Republican resurgence.
Kondik agrees, with an asterisk.
“The party that controls the White House typically pays a price down the ballot, so it’s probably true that the Democratic position in West Virginia would be stronger if, say, John McCain were in his second term,” he said.
“But the state was trending Republican before Obama came along. There just aren’t many Democrats like Manchin left nationally, and it’s harder and harder for the Manchin types who do remain to differentiate themselves from the national brand.”
Kondik said that if Manchin runs for governor, he’d start as a small favorite. “Part of the Republicans’ problem is that they do not have a great bench … but they also came relatively close to beating current Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin” — a Democrat — “in 2012, so I wouldn’t rule out an upset.”
Manchin undoubtedly would be a strong candidate for his old job. But leaving the U.S. Senate would put national Democrats in a bind to hold that seat, which could give Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., something to bank on for 2016.
Frustrations with his own party in Washington aside, Manchin’s “bottom line is, I want to be the best senator I can be for the state of West Virginia and make sure it is represented in the proper light” — as “the hard-working, God-fearing people that we are.”
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).