Reporting for CNN about Joe Manchin's relationship with his West Virginia constituents-- remember this is an R+23 state (second most politically backward in the country after Wyoming), where Trump beat Biden 68.6% to 29.7%-- Dan Merica wrote that Manchin's shtik is that every bipartisan avenue has to be exhausted before he'll pick the best option for the people of his state. "That persona," wrote Merica, "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." CNN conducted over a dozen very select interviews with West Virginians to see how they feel about Machin's approach today. CNN found "both a deep respect for Manchin's desire for bipartisanship and a growing impatience that questioned whether such agreement was possible any longer." West Virginians-- or at least the ones CNN chose to speak with-- are extraordinarily stupid... or just living in a fantasy.
[B]ack 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.
..."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."
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'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.
...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.'"