US Senator Joe Manchin leaves after a meeting with US President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower December 12, 2016 in New York.
Manchin: Trump should make his clothes in WV
04:58 - Source: CNN

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Sen. Joe Manchin has worked to strengthen his relationship to President Donald Trump

Manchin is a Democrat in a state where Trump won overwhelmingly

Huntington, West Virginia CNN  — 

It was as if a light bulb went off over Sen. Joe Manchin’s head.

“Get Monte from ‘Say Yes to the Dress.’ You know Monte – what’s his last name?” the Democratic senator spun around smiling, looking at everyone nearby. “He’s a West Virginia boy!”

Manchin was touring a job fair hosted by his office last week and had just met the director of West Virginia’s affiliate for Dress for Success, an organization that helps provide professional clothes for women.

As he’d been doing with others at the fair, the Democratic senator tried to think of someone who could help publicize their cause.

“He’s on ‘Say Yes to the Dress,’” Manchin repeated, still searching for the last name of the celebrity bridal consultant from the TLC reality show. Minutes later, a staffer looking at a phone answered him.

“Durham,” she said. “Monte’s last name is Durham.”

It was the 17th job fair Manchin’s office had hosted, this time in Huntington, West Virginia, a city with nearly 50,000 people on the western edge of the state. A steady stream of hundreds flowed in and out of a small arena for more than three hours to circulate among the 160 vendors.

When Manchin, who’s known for his retail politicking skills, showed up, he could barely make his way through the lobby. He wasn’t swarmed like a celebrity; rather, there was an air of familiarity.

People walked up to him to take selfies or say he was doing a good job. Others approached him with personal requests, asking for help in Washington or support for local projects. Some politely shook his hand but showed no interest in talking to him.

On Manchin’s part, there was a lot of affection: squeezing of elderly women’s hands, shoulder slapping with men and hearty handshakes and hugs. He constantly tried to come up with ideas to help the people he encountered, from recovering drug addicts to veterans.

Manchin was already a well-known figure in West Virginia and on the national stage, but he has seen renewed attention under the first 100 days of President Donald Trump’s administration.

That’s because his status as one of the few Democrats up for re-election in a state that overwhelmingly voted for Trump has thrust him into a delicate position, where he can be both courted and criticized by both sides of the aisle.

But make no mistake: Manchin is no shoe-in for his re-election next year.

Though the senator – who’s had a long career in public service – has high name recognition in the state and a brand as a centrist Democrat, he’s still campaigning among an electorate that picked Trump over Hillary Clinton by a whopping 42 points.

At the fair, a Cowboy-hat wearing Democrat named Charles Masters approached him with a photo of a younger Manchin standing next to a younger Bill Clinton, the last Democratic presidential candidate to win the Mountain State back in 1996.

“He is standing beside the greatest politician that ever lived,” Masters later told CNN, talking about the photo and praising Clinton’s ability to work with Republicans.

It was a stark illustration of the complex situation Manchin now finds himself in. He’s a Democrat who started his political career in a state that was once very comfortable with Democrats but now rejects some of the progressive trajectory the party has taken.

In fact, Democrats in West Virginia outnumbered Republicans in last year’s election – 44% to 31% – but the state still yielded Trump one of his greatest victory margins over Clinton.

Manchin said people have pitched him the idea of abandoning his identity as a Democrat and adopting a different political affiliation. But he said he’s “just not going to do it.”

“People pretty much know my brand. They know who I am,” he told CNN in an interview, while munching on a chicken salad sandwich after the fair.

“If I was a constituent and I looked at me and I said ‘Joe Manchin, he’s changed to a Republican or changed to an independent. What was his purpose – strictly to get re-elected? To help him politically? Or did he change his brand, too? Is he going to be somebody different now? Maybe he’s not going to be the old Joe I’ve known for 30 years.’ So I said, listen, I am who I am. Being a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ or not does not change anything.”

Aiming to be the ‘honest broker’

Instead, Manchin is building a case that he’s a Democrat with Trump’s ear and can be what he calls an “honest broker” between the White House and his own party.

“I have access, I can speak to him,” he said. “I don’t think he looks at me from the standpoint, ‘Well you’re the opposition party and you’re the opposition.’”

Manchin said their rapport far surpasses his relationship with former President Barack Obama, of which he said “there was none.”

Trump invited Manchin to Trump Tower in December to discuss a potential job as energy secretary. Not long after, Manchin announced he’d be staying in the Senate. Still, he has visited the White House multiple times this year and speaks openly about conversing with Trump over the phone.

Manchin has voted against only four of Trump’s cabinet or major administration nominees – casting the fewest “no” votes among Democrats – and was the only one in his party to confirm Jeff Sessions for attorney general.

He also worked behind the scenes with a bipartisan group of senators in search of a deal to avert the “nuclear option” in the battle over Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court. The talks were unsuccessful, and Manchin was vocal in his disappointment with both parties. He was one of three Democrats who ultimately went against their party’s filibuster and voted to confirm Gorsuch.

Manchin’s relationship with the President – as well as the senator’s efforts to cozy up to conservative media outlets like Breitbart – have generated buzz this year, and last week Manchin sounded open to a potential endorsement from Trump, though he said he hasn’t spoken with the president about it.

“We’ll just see,” he said. “We’ll see if the political winds pull him in that direction.”

Manchin has also been critical of Trump at times. He opposed the President’s initial executive order on immigration back in February and has sent sharp warnings against trying to repeal Obamacare, saying government should simply focus on repairing it.

Still, in his interview with CNN, Manchin offered perhaps his highest compliment to Trump.

“President Trump, from all I can observe in the first 100 days, is operating like the governor of the United States,” said Manchin, a former governor himself.

Manchin still relishes his time as his state’s chief executive (2005-2010) and almost achingly longs for that kind of role again. He’s part of a former governors caucus in the Senate, where there’s a running joke that the worst day as a governor is still better than the best day as a senator.

“We’re the ones I think that can solve the problems. I really believe that. Because we had to,” he said. “We could never afford the luxury of being real right or real left.”

‘That will be a hard decision’

Not being “real right or real left” can also be a fitting description for West Virginia voters.

Interviews with more than a dozen local residents in search of a job at the fair revealed not only mixed reviews of Manchin but a mosaic of perspectives that defy political norms.

Some were Democrats who voted for Trump. Some were Republicans who liked Manchin. But most emphasized that, while they may be registered with a party, they primarily consider themselves independents.

Most shared a widespread distrust of politicians, even for the ones they like. Mike Mitchell, 66, a registered Democrat who votes “for the person, not the party,” wanted Clinton to win, but he backed Trump instead. And while he said he’s “happy” with Manchin as his senator and plans to vote for him next year, he said at the end of the day he’s “not sure” he can trust him.

“Government is awful. It’s just very awful,” Mitchell said. “Do you trust in who you believe in? It’s very hard anymore. Things are not like they used to be. Even around here.”

Jarrett Peters, 78, said he’s not registered with any party and voted for Trump last year. He said he likes the way things are going in Washington under the new administration and plans to vote for Manchin.

Eddie Edwards, another Democrat who voted for Trump, wasn’t as pleased with the federal government, including Manchin. “I guess he’s our guy. I don’t pay attention to politics because it pisses me off,” Edwards said, expressing frustration at the lack of jobs in the area and federal attempts to roll back Obamacare.

Marilyn Meade, a 63-year-old Democrat who also stressed that she votes “for the person,” preferred Bernie Sanders over Clinton in the primary, but said she likes Manchin’s moderate spirit and stated that she’ll be voting for him next year.

To further demonstrate her independent approach, Meade added that she voted for her Republican congressman, Evan Jenkins.

It’s that same congressman who’s considering a challenge against Manchin next year, as is state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

Meade was surprised to hear that Jenkins might run for the Senate, and her enthusiastic tone for Manchin suddenly changed.

“I don’t know, that will be a hard decision,” she said.

The forming opposition

Republicans, who feel they have a strong path to victory in West Virginia, are prepared to throw the kitchen sink at Manchin next year.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has already started linking his voting record – and that of other vulnerable Democrats up for re-election – to that of liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren and pointed out last week that her political action committee donated to his campaign.

It’s all part of an effort by Republicans to deflect attempts by these moderate Democrats to broaden their appeal among Trump voters.

“Joe Manchin will speak conservative, but his actual voting record indicates otherwise,” argued Conrad Lucas, chairman of the West Virginia GOP.

Also likely to come up is Manchin’s 2013 proposal with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey to expand background checks on gun purchases, a position that drew sharp rebuke from gun rights activists, including the National Rifle Association.

Manchin, a gun owner himself, defended his compromise push four years ago, which failed to advance in the Senate. Manchin feels that the proposal now has a greater chance of success under Trump than under Obama, because Second Amendment supporters won’t be as worried that Trump will use it as a slippery slope toward more gun control.

“There’s no one who believes he’s going to take their guns away,” he said.

Also anticipated from his opposition are attacks involving his daughter, Heather Bresch, over criticism that her company, Mylan, raised prices for the life-saving medicine EpiPen by nearly 500% last year in order to enrich her company

And Republicans are sure to reiterate Manchin’s loyalty to Clinton last year, even after she made the damaging comment in a CNN town hall that she was “going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

Clinton later said it was a misstatement, but the quote still reverberated around the state. She won a dismal 27% of the vote there in November.

Manchin described her comment as “horrible” but defended his continued support of her after the remark, saying, “I don’t think that was in her heart. I talked to her and we were going to do things for my state.”

“I think the President respects and understands the loyalty that I had. I wasn’t against, I was just for,” he said. “And that person I was for got defeated.”

‘I’m just going to get a boat’

It’s no secret that when Manchin is in Washington, he lives on a houseboat that he named “Almost Heaven.” It was both a practical and symbolic decision.

“I didn’t want to be a permanent resident in Washington. And when you buy something, it’s almost like you’ve anchored yourself down,” he said. “So I told my wife, I’m just going to get a boat.”

Multiple stories have been written about Manchin using his boat as a vessel to bring senators together behind the scenes, aided by some food and drinks.

He said last week that sometimes they play music by country singer Lee Greenwood, most known for his song “God Bless the USA,” which Trump used as his walk-on music for campaign rallies.

Manchin painted a hard-to-imagine picture of kumbaya moments on the boat.

“It’s the most fulfilling thing to watch – all these senators at the end of an evening, when we’re together, hug each other and basically sing ‘Proud to be an American,’” he said.

Manchin ranked No. 4 on a bipartisan index by The Lugar Center and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, which ranks senators based on how many pieces of legislation they worked on with members of the opposite party.

The only Democrat who had a higher ranking was Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who’s also up for re-election next year in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump. (The rankings measured legislative work from the 114th Congress, not the current session which started in January.)

But acting as a bipartisan mediator can be a risky calculation during such partisan times. While it can appeal to more moderate voters, it can also remove the security blanket of getting the full support from your own party, and it can draw accusations of being a fair-weather politician based on the changing moods among voters.

Manchin, as he approaches what’s expected to be a tough race, appears to be comfortably set in what can sometimes look like political no-man’s land.

“The country is getting further and further apart. You know, you’re on the right or the left. There’s no middle,” he said. “And I’m not leaving the middle.”