Senator Joe Manchin: Washington's most powerful man?

On a stretch of water six miles south of Washington DC sits a houseboat named ‘Almost Heaven’. This boat is like many others that sit in docks across the United States, but what makes it unique is the man who calls it home. That man is Senator Joe Manchin III, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, and I mention his dwelling not as a ‘fun fact’, but rather because it represents Senator Manchin’s politics and beliefs in a surprisingly apt way.

Manchin chooses to live on the boat because he believes that buying a permanent house in the Capitol would signal to his constituents that he enjoyed living there and would make him seem like just another DC politician, far removed from the people who elected him. It is this image as a ‘different kind’ of politician that has allowed Manchin to retain his seat in perhaps the single most Republican state in the union.

In 2016 the state of West Virginia voted for Donald Trump by 67.9%, making it Trump’s second-biggest margin of victory after Wyoming. In 2020, the voters of West Virginia increased their support for the Republican President by a percentage point and made clear that they were one of the reddest states in the country. However, in between these two elections, Joe Manchin managed to retain the support of his state, winning his third election to the Senate in the 2018 midterms. Why is it that such a profoundly Republican state continues to return a Democrat to Washington?

The answer to this question not only allows us to understand why Manchin is still supported by his Republican constituents, but it also gives us an understanding of how he has become one of the most powerful and influential men in the Capitol. It is the same answer to this question that will also likely explain his almost inevitable downfall in the coming years, as he almost certainly begins to lose his power and support.

Manchin wants to be seen as an outsider who is fighting against the ‘corrupt swamp’ that exists in the Capitol. And unlike most politicians, he backs his rhetoric with action, not least by his decision to live on a boat. Manchin has sought to fight the perception of Washington as a place where nothing gets done, not by going in hard against his opponents and seeking to disrupt the work of Congress like so many in the Trump camp, but by working in a bipartisan way to achieve tangible results for his constituents. Reaching out across the aisle in order to get a new bridge built in his state may not seem as radical as the actions of many of his colleagues, but at this present moment, such bipartisanship has precipitated the deaths of many political careers.

However, Manchin also continues to retain support by working against his own party. As a conservative Democrat in the current 50-50 Senate, Manchin is seen as a deciding vote on many key issues. This grants him a disproportionate share of power and influence, and he has shown himself keen to use (and some would argue abuse) this.

At present, two major issues have cast the spotlight on Senator Manchin: the first is the push by many Democrats to reform (or indeed remove) the filibuster; the second is the fight by many on the left to pass a new voting rights bill. On these two issues Manchin has strayed from the pack and in doing so has borne condemnation from his Democratic colleagues in order to retain the support he needs back home.

The filibuster is a Senate rule that means that any piece of legislation must have the approval of 60-out-of-100 senators in order to pass. Currently, the Democrats have just 50 seats in the Senate (but retain control as Vice President Kamala Harris has a deciding vote in split ballots), effectively rendering them unable to pass any major pieces of progressive legislation given their Republican colleagues have made it clear they have no intention of supporting them.

Many Democrats have therefore sought to remove the filibuster, arguing convincingly that it is undemocratic. However, Senator Manchin has made clear that this is something he could never support. Ironically, changing Senate rules only requires a simple 51 vote majority, and so Senator Manchin’s refusal to endorse a change in the rules is proving to be a massive hurdle for his party.

His opposition to the filibuster seems to stem from his belief that if all the senators came together and worked in a bipartisan manner, there would be no need to worry as legislation would always pass the 60-vote threshold. Admittedly, this idea seems somewhat removed from reality at the present time. But his support of the rule is also seemingly essential in retaining the support of his constituents, who live in one of the most rural and least-populated states in the union and thus worry about being dominated by the larger and more cosmopolitan ones.

Senator Manchin speaking in his home state of West Virginia, 2016.

Manchin’s refusal to revoke the filibuster carries far more serious implications for the Democrats than usual, as it is making it near impossible for them to pass their flagship voting rights bill, something that has been the focus of the party for much of the past few months. Voting rights have become a major issue in the US over the past few years as Republican officials at the state level have sought to implement the strictest voting laws since the removal of Jim Crow voting restrictions with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

States like Georgia and Texas have passed laws that make voting significantly more difficult, disproportionately impacting poorer people, as well as African Americans. These groups are some of the Democrats key voting demographics and the party has been keen to mount an offensive against these new laws. Manchin is keen to see reforms in this area and went so far as to produce his own draft bill which, according to the New York Times, “would make Election Day a holiday, require 15 days of early voting and ban partisan gerrymandering, among other steps.”

While this proposal was endorsed by the renowned voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, it nevertheless represents Manchin’s determination to be seen as his own man, not chained down by party loyalty. His proposal was another attempt to create a compromise that would work for both sides, but Republicans have made it clear that they will not support any such laws. Unsurprisingly, his bill died before even being voted on.

On Tuesday 22nd June, the Republicans filibustered the Democrats flagship bill, preventing it from passing. Senator Manchin did vote in favour of the bill, leading to a split 50-50 vote along partisan lines, which fell far short of the 60 needed to override the filibuster. Despite this, Manchin and his colleague from Arizona, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, have remained unmoved in their belief that the filibuster is essential and thus remain the ultimate roadblock in the way of a more progressive Democratic party.

Senator Joe Manchin is one of the most powerful and influential politicians in the United States. His support is key in an evenly divided Senate, and he is using this influence with force, essentially preventing his Democratic colleagues from being able to fulfil their election promises. Manchin does continue to work with colleagues on both sides: for example, in his attempt to get a bipartisan group to create a new infrastructure plan for the country. However, this bipartisan attitude is becoming less and less attractive to many both in the Senate and in his home state.

The country has become split politically and both sides are strengthening their defences, leaving people like Joe Manchin out in the open and vulnerable. His support back home in West Virginia has plummeted since his decision to vote to convict President Trump in the 2020 impeachment trial. He has also become a target for progressive Democrats who see him as essentially a DINO (Democrat in Name Only), with Bill Maher choosing to dedicate a segment of his ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’ show to bashing the senator for failing to support Democratic policies.

Manchin is not up for re-election until 2024. However, his fall from grace is likely to come before that. If the 2022 midterm elections produce any kind of change in the Senate’s makeup then Manchin will lose all the sway he currently holds. If Democrats gain any seats, then he will likely find himself unable to stop the flood of progressive policies from the party moving forward. However, any Republican win will find him unable to help pass any of the more progressive policies that he does support. The clock is therefore ticking for Manchin as his position as one of the most talked about politicians in the US cannot be sustained if he loses the power he holds as the key vote within the Senate.

His decision to essentially become a barrier to the policies of his own party, and President Biden in particular, has made him somewhat of a persona non grata within Democratic circles and he is thus likely to become a marginal figure within the party after the 2022 elections.

Manchin’s chances of success in the 2024 elections, should he choose to run, already seem slim. He is seen as a different kind of politician, and it is this which in the past has made him successful in the most Republican of states, but things are undeniably different now. He has also become one of the most powerful men in the country, with his vote being seen as the key for new legislation. However, if there is even a slight change in the composition of the Senate after the 2022 mid-terms, we could be watching his downfall as he becomes shunned by both his party and his constituents.

Image Credit: Andy Feliciotti via Unsplash & Governor Earl Ray Tomblin via Flickr