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Why Joe Manchin’s West Virginia GOP primary ad makes sense

West Virginia is losing a congressional seat, a situation that has two Republican incumbents going head-to-head in one of its two remaining districts. This weekend, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., weighed in on the race in the most on-brand way possible.

In a 30-second ad, Manchin reminds West Virginia’s voters that if he “can’t go home and explain it, I can’t vote for it, and that’s why I opposed Build Back Better.” Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., also was against the legislation, Manchin said, despite what his opponent in the GOP primary, Rep. Alex Mooney, claims.

McKinley “has always opposed reckless spending because it doesn’t make sense for West Virginia,” Manchin said. The senator concluded: “Alex Mooney has proven he’s all about Alex Mooney. But West Virginians know David McKinley is all about us.”

There are a couple of things to unpack here. First and foremost, it’s more than a little frustrating that Manchin is outright touting his opposition to Build Back Better as a political victory. President Joe Biden’s economic agenda has remained stalled since Manchin walked away from the bill in December, effectively killing it in the Senate.

It’s more than a little frustrating that Manchin is outright touting his opposition to Build Back Better as a political victory.

Since then, Manchin has hinted that he might be in favor of a smaller package that deals with tax reform, prescription drug costs, and energy, but those items don’t add up to the transformative social spending package many Democrats were hoping to have completed ahead of the midterms. And “sclerotic” is the best word for the pace of the negotiations on this theoretical package that Manchin would support.

Second, never let it be said that Manchin doesn’t have a sharp sense of political strategy. Since joining the Senate, he’s held the national Democratic Party at arm’s length, positioning himself as a bipartisan dealmaker who cares more about getting things done for West Virginians than falling in line with the party’s leaders. That image has been a crucial part of his calculation in opposing both the Build Back Better Act and killing the filibuster in the Senate.

One of Mooney’s main attacks on his fellow Republican is that McKinley voted in favor of the $555 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill that Biden signed into law last year. Manchin, as you may remember, was one of the key architects of that bill, so backing McKinley seems like the senator shrewdly returning the favor. It also makes sense for Manchin to help save an infrequent ally instead of letting the seat go to Mooney, who has former President Donald Trump’s backing.

That being said, I have to wonder: Where is this energy from Manchin for West Virginian Democrats? We’ve sort of taken at face value that we’re only going to be able to get Manchin-style Democrats elected to Congress in a state that’s only grown more Republican over the last 20 years. But why hasn’t Manchin done more to promote Democrats cut from the same cloth as himself to run for office — or at least gotten behind candidates that have tried to unseat Republican incumbents in his state?

Manchin threw his support behind Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., in his attempt to defend the (soon to be nonexistent) third congressional district seat in 2014. “Nick’s a straight shooter. Nick works with me every day to fight the Obama administration’s war on coal,” Manchin declared in an ad he cut for Rahall. (It was a common sentiment among West Virginia Democrats during Barack Obama’s presidency. U.S. Senate candidate Natalie Tennant shut off the lights to the White House in defense of coal in a 2014 ad, and Manchin famously shot a copy of a cap and trade bill with a rifle during his 2010 race.)

Rahall lost that race, as did Tennant, making Manchin the only West Virginia Democrat elected to federal office. In 2018, Democratic state Senator Rich Ojeda was running to take back the seat that Rahall had lost four years earlier. Ojeda was first inspired to get into politics after Manchin invited him to the State of the Union, Politico magazine reported. But I’ve been unable to find any evidence that Manchin, who was also running for re-election, ever issued any message of support for Ojeda or made any joint appearance with him at a campaign event.

While the Democrats didn’t exactly send their best to test the Republican incumbents in the House races in 2020, Manchin by all appearances opted not to campaign on their behalf. He didn’t appear in any campaign ads that I could find. And the last donation that Manchin’s campaign made to the West Virginia Democratic Party was in 2018, according to the Federal Election Commission.

I asked Manchin’s office whether I had missed any campaign ads for Democratic candidates in 2020. I also asked if we could expect the same show of support that he’s shown McKinley to the Democrat who winds up on the ballot in the general election for the second congressional district seat. As of Monday afternoon, Manchin’s office had yet to provide an answer, and I will update this column if his office does.

Now, do I think that this ad for McKinley is a sign that Manchin is finally preparing to switch parties as so many have speculated over the years? No. I do think it shows that at this point Manchin thinks of his own political survival as being entirely distinct from that of the party’s fortunes nationwide. And that’s exactly how he wants it.

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