Back in 1996, when West Virginia was a thoroughly Democratic state, two state senators competed for the party’s nomination for governor—Joe Manchin and Charlotte Pritt. When Pritt won the primary by a 7-point margin, her victory pointed to a potentially new direction for the small, coal-dominated state: She was a different kind of West Virginia Democrat, a coal miner’s daughter, yes, but also an unabashed environmentalist and labor supporter. She ran on universal health care, collective bargaining rights for state employees, and shifting tax burdens from individuals to corporations; her victory could have presaged a leftward tilt for the state. But she didn’t win. And part of the reason came down to the fact that her former primary opponent, Manchin, who hailed from a family of coal-town mayors, stumped for Pritt’s opponent, Republican Cecil Underwood. He persuaded hundreds of fellow moderate Democrats to join him in crossing party lines, because he was worried about Pritt’s unabashed liberalism: According to an old Tulsa World report, he depicted her as a “pro-abortion, anti-gun, anti-death-penalty candidate who will scare jobs away,” despite the fact she was a longtime NRA member and pro-worker activist. With his membership in the pro-corporate, conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, Manchin had influential business and political connections that made him a trusted name. In the end, Underwood carried the governor’s mansion, though the state as a whole gave its delegates to Bill Clinton for president—the most recent time a Democratic presidential candidate would win West Virginia’s electors.
Today, Joe Manchin, now a senator, has happened into the position of being one of the most decisive figures on Capitol Hill. With the Senate at a 50–50 partisan deadlock, President Joe Biden’s agenda can’t afford to lose a single vote from his party’s caucus—and Manchin is not only the party’s most conservative member but the chair of the powerful Energy Committee. As a result, it’s Manchin who’ll decide not only whether Democratic-led legislation has a chance of passing but also which energy innovations the party will prioritize as climate change intensifies nationwide. In the first four weeks of Biden’s presidency, every Manchin utterance and action has been read as tea leaves that will show how far Biden’s economic relief and climate agenda may get. What everyone wants to know is what the aisle-crossing Manchin will do now. Stymie climate ambitions? Use his newfound power to deliver jobs and benefits to his home state? Blockade the leftist influence on his party?
In order to get a grasp on the man at the literal center of it all, it’s worth looking back at how exactly the longtime politician gradually cemented his current kingmaking stature. It’s a story that ties in closely to how the once-omnipotent West Virginia Democratic Party lost its power, something Manchin, currently the only statewide Democratic representative, had no small part in facilitating—ultimately building the constraints he so publicly struggles through now. The heated 1996 gubernatorial race and its aftermath lay the groundwork for Manchin’s influence within his state’s politics, and allowed his party to be shaped in the image of his moderate ideals. It’s part of what led the once-solid-blue state to be eclipsed by the GOP, which would find more opportunity following Underwood’s victory. National politics may not be just like West Virginia politics, but the story of the latter, and Manchin’s role in it, might help explain the future of the country under this particular Senate.
After the 1996 race, Manchin left public service for a brief stint serving as president of state-based energy firm Enersystems, where, among other things, he advocated for environmentally damaging practices like mountaintop removal, which enables easy-access coal mining. In 2000, he made a bid for West Virginia secretary of state, this time beating Pritt in the Democratic primary and winning his general election, which helped Democrat Bob Wise oust the Republican governor Manchin had previously endorsed. But West Virginia nationally went for the oil-friendly George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, whose campaign there took advantage of the weaknesses of environmentalist Democratic candidate Al Gore and gave the duo the exact five-point Electoral College margin they needed for Florida to install them in the White House.
There was a throughline in the state’s national and local party-splitting vote: coal, the defining force of West Virginia. That industry built everything in the state, from the steel factories to the once-thriving cities to the very machines that started replacing miners. The state’s Democratic coalition was built on strong energy-worker unions and expansive New Deal programs. But from the mid-1980s through that fateful November 2000 election, West Virginia shed more than 100,000 coal mining jobs. The causes were myriad—automation, globalization, alternative energy sources, the steady decimation of manufacturing, weakened labor power, corporate malfeasance—but West Virginians, perhaps understandably, paid their immediate attention to the effects they felt in their lives. With lost jobs came a shrinking population, increased federal dependence, and resentment of institutions, like regulators, corporate fixers, and environmental groups, none of whom seemed to give a hoot about what would come of the displaced workers. Charlotte Pritt and Al Gore may have understood as early as the ’90s that coal was never returning to its past glories, but many West Virginians couldn’t accept that. How could they, when fossil fuels had given them everything? How could there be a future without their life-giving source?
Thus, coal-friendly Joe Manchin would come to dominate West Virginia’s decade. He became such a popular figure among both West Virginians and businesses within the area that companies like DuPont and General Electric would donate to his eventual campaign for governor, which he won in 2004. Manchin then passed a mix of policies that spanned both sides of the aisle: He cut taxes, fought off energy regulators, enacted workplace safety standards, and served as a consistent, comforting presence for families who lost loved ones in coal mine explosions. He also helped pass legislation to develop renewable energy and less carbon-intensive fossil fuels like natural gas, and also helped shepherd some wind farms into the state. Coal was still king, but if an alternative opportunity meant business, jobs, and benefits for suffering West Virginians, he was for it. But while Manchin pulled off this balancing act, he would pave the way for his own party’s struggles: In not backing down from prioritizing coal, in embracing conservative policies on both a regulatory and social level, in making a show of fighting off the interfering liberals in D.C. after Barack Obama (whom Manchin had initially supported) was elected, he helped make the populace, which trusted him, more hostile to some of the very things Democrats wanted to embrace.
After winning a landslide reelection in 2008, Manchin had enough of a profile to make his bid for the national stage when Robert Byrd, the senior West Virginia senator who’d served in office since the late Eisenhower era, died in 2010. Manchin launched a fierce campaign for the special election, during which he sued the Environmental Protection Agency over its attempt to regulate mountaintop removal mining, distanced himself from Obama (whose EPA’s regulations were blamed, disproportionately, for the relentless coal slump), and opposed the Senate’s skimpy carbon cap-and-trade bill by infamously shooting a bullet through its text in a campaign ad. Despite his opponent’s attempts to attack him as an Obama stooge, he won the election by 10 points, going on to handily win a full term in 2012 as well.
When he entered the chamber, Manchin made a show of camaraderie, meeting one-on-one with all of his Senate colleagues. He also introduced bills that made clear that even though he was a Democrat, he was hostile to parts of the party’s agenda: He tried to curb the EPA’s regulatory power, supported the Keystone XL pipeline (as he still does), and championed legislation promoting “alternative fuels,” especially natural gas (which, incidentally, was already helping kill off coal production). He was the only Senate Democrat in 2012 to take Koch money to support his reelection campaign. Manchin also consistently said he accepted the reality of human-caused climate change while still defending fossil fuel energy usage and denouncing “deniers on both sides,” who, for Manchin, included Democrats looking to tamp down coal production. He supported his party’s climate-conscious candidate in 2016, though he made sure to extract assurances from Hillary Clinton that her policies around green energy and just transitions for fossil fuel workers would not hurt West Virginia jobs. Still, by that point, national party loyalty was becoming a liability—the same voters who distrusted Obama the regulator could not bear Clinton, either.
After Donald Trump took the White House, Manchin was one of few Democrats to change tactics with the new president. He appeared eager to work with Trump, meeting with him often and voting to confirm even some of his most noxious Cabinet and judicial nominees (though not all of them—he voted against Betsy DeVos when he realized her education policies would hurt his state’s public school systems). All the while, other West Virginia Democrats faced their political mortality. Though the state had more registered Democrats than Republicans (and still does), economic depletion continued apace. Koch-backed ads made out Washington Democrats to be coal’s enemies. Animus at Democrats’ liberal social policies flamed. Skepticism of and anger at the national party trickled down. By 2014, Republicans had taken over the state Legislature, the House delegation, and the other Senate seat. Two years after, West Virginia went for Trump, who claimed he would bring beautiful coal jobs back, by a 42-point margin over Clinton.
By 2017, during which state Gov. Jim Justice switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, Manchin was the last West Virginia Democrat with any significant power. He hated his position. Twenty years before, he’d helped to entrench the conservative streaks of his state, but now it had followed the path to its inevitable conclusion—from gun-toting family values to vehement nationalism, anti-environmentalism, xenophobia, and anti-liberalism at all costs.
Near the end of his first full Senate term in 2018, Manchin wasn’t even sure he’d run again. On more than one occasion, he was caught saying “this place sucks” (referring to both the Senate and the District of Columbia). But Manchin remained loyal to national Democrats, and far from “go[ing] full MAGA,” as some outlets claimed, he refined his balancing act. As the Trump era pushed discourse left on certain issues, Manchin followed suit, to an extent. Despite his well-chronicled support from Big Pharma, Manchin refused to vote in favor of any of the GOP’s Obamacare repeal efforts (as well as other efforts to “reform” Medicare and Medicaid). He also voted against the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Though he’s personally a staunch anti-abortion Catholic, he voted against bills that stripped funding from abortion providers. He worked on multiple bipartisan bills that conserved wildlife, kept championing carbon capture efforts, and lobbied the EPA to enforce federal drinking water standards after it decided against regulating toxic chemicals—in other words, he ended up finally telling the EPA to regulate more, not less. Moreover, he defended the decisions that would upset any hardcore Republican voters or activists by going back to one key undercurrent: whatever he thinks is most beneficial for West Virginians. He kept visiting his state, explaining himself, making it known that although he was a Democrat, he was first and foremost a West Virginian.
And so, even after expressing his vocal disgust with the state of American politics, Manchin agreed, following near-begging from Senate Democratic leaders who recognized his unique ability to keep one West Virginia Senate seat blue, to push on for another term. And though his voters stuck to their newfound Republicanism, they sent Manchin himself back to the chamber, albeit with a narrower victory margin than before. Republicans were happy to attack Manchin’s liberal votes and affiliation, but they couldn’t beat the state voters who’d known Manchin for decades and trusted him as a man who stood on his own and didn’t allow himself to be cowed by the Washington elites, as the rare politician who actually understood West Virginia.
That may be the simple answer to why Joe Manchin has survived: He’s always championed himself as a pragmatist and independent thinker to whom the welfare of West Virginians matters most of all. He continues to hold town halls back home, carefully explaining his votes and legislative actions, like he did for decades as a state politico. And he insists on representing all of West Virginia; even when he was new to the Senate, he made a point of personally visiting the bulk of the state’s counties. If West Virginia voters are anything, they are themselves pragmatists, voting on the basis of their bottom line. They’ll vote for the guy who’s proved that he will listen to them, who does in fact actively listen, whose actions are carried out with the people in mind. Joe Manchin may be an industry man, yes—but in a state built by industry, that also means he’s a man of the people.
Manchin’s current term might be his last—he already says he’s likely not running again. But if he’s going out, he might as well use his national prominence to help his state, while continuing to float above the ideological headwinds. Despite Trump’s popularity in West Virginia, Manchin voted to convict him during both impeachment trials and tweeted at Jack Dorsey to suspend Trump’s Twitter account following the Capitol insurrection. And in spite of worries from climate activists about his fossil-fueled rise, he may be finally coming to terms with the impending dangers of coal dependence. He co-wrote a Washington Post op-ed with fellow moderate Sen. Lisa Murkowski about the importance of addressing climate change, and their words became a form of action: They shoehorned funding for clean energy efforts into the late 2020 COVID-19 stimulus package, furthering work Manchin had done with the Department of Agriculture to allocate funding to local clean energy projects and with the EPA to monetize grants for air and water pollution control. (West Virginia’s state lawmakers have refused to pass any local economic incentives for renewable energy.) Also, unlike many Senate Republicans, he has repeated the entreaties of public health scientists, urging his constituents to wear masks and practice safe distancing in the midst of the pandemic.
Manchin probably won’t be the one to back an “FDR-size” Biden agenda, despite his admiration for the New Deal president. He’s a well-established “no” on killing the filibuster, passing a Green New Deal, and ballooning the deficit (his official senatorial Twitter regularly retweets a national debt tracker). But there are signs he could be amenable to once-radical proposals that are now necessities for his party. He went from opposing statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico in November to, just two months later, declaring himself “open” to “see[ing] the pros and cons.” He railed against $2,000 stimulus checks, only to relent after protests within his own state; more remarkably, he shrugged off his own bipartisan commitment when he realized Republicans’ stimulus counteroffer was not sufficient. His main opposition effort was simply to back messaging amendments instead of breaking from his party entirely.
Manchin hasn’t lost his stubbornness—he remains a “no” on a $15 minimum wage and continues to support practices such as fracking—but the checks debacle, among other examples, shows how Manchin can be swayed: populist pushback from the very West Virginians the senator stands for. These same constituents will be affected by climate change just like everyone else. It’s already poisoning them. Environmental institutions within the state are pushing forward ambitious proposals in response, and West Virginians are gradually realizing the impending dangers: More than half of them claim to recognize the dangers of climate change (though a little less than half realize it is human-caused), and strong majorities favor renewable energy and regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. Manchin may be obstinate, but he’s not an idiot. What ultimately will be best for West Virginians is policy that ensures not only their financial well-being but also their survival in the face of impending apocalypse.
No matter his claims that he “hasn’t changed,” Manchin has undoubtedly shifted. The fact that a limp, ineffective cap-and-trade bill with multiple industry concessions earned a Manchin-fired bullet in 2010 while multiple policies expending government funds toward clean energy and transit development gained his signature a decade later should be a promising sign. It is not quite enough to deal with our future climate horrors, but it is inevitable progress that the climate conscious should cautiously celebrate as Manchin presides over energy hearings—and then leverage to keep pushing for more, by drawing on his state’s needs. If the Democratic Party’s mandates also work for West Virginians, he’s likely to not only go along with them but use his platform to trumpet them as massive political successes, as examples of Congress working to actually improve the well-being of the left behind. And maybe—maybe—the Senate’s most powerful swing voter could be an asset in the battle against climate change.