When politicians start getting nervous about their reelection chances, there are typically telltale signs. Some will start moderating their positions on key issues, suddenly touting their newfound bipartisanship. Others will start name-dropping their friends across the aisle and cosponsoring symbolic feel-good legislation. Occasionally, candidates will aggressively attack their opponents early on, preparing to win a race to the bottom.
The key for success is being subtle, never showing the opposition you’re too worried. Swing too far in the opposite direction on an issue, and you’ll be labeled a flip-flopper. Act too chummy with the other side, and your base will be ticked. Intervene in another party’s primary and you’re just showcasing your desperation.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, one of the most battle-tested politicians in Washington, is starting to look like one of those panicked incumbents as his battle for a second term draws closer. Running in the most Trump-friendly state in the country, he’s beginning to behave in ways that suggest he’s a lot more vulnerable than the public polls suggest.
Despite being a critical cog in the Democrats’ hopes for a Senate majority, he telegraphed a retirement threat to The New York Times to prove he’s not a patsy for his party’s liberal wing. Under fire from Vice President Mike Pence for opposing the administration’s tax cut, he’s been complaining how much “Washington sucks” in an effort to portray himself as a congressional outsider. He’s now urging his colleagues not to campaign against any sitting senators, a move that is transparently in his (and the Democratic Party’s) own interest.
Caught between the demands of Democratic leadership to stick with the party on big votes and the culturally conservative nature of his constituents, he’s in an increasingly awkward position. Republicans gleefully circulated footage of him unsure of when to stand and applaud President Trump’s State of the Union address. Another popular anti-Manchin meme shows a split photo of the senator showcasing his support for Planned Parenthood at one event, while posing with antiabortion activists at another—both from 2017.
At a time when partisanship is at a historic high, it’s hard to see how Manchin avoids a highly competitive race, even with a relatively strong approval rating back home. He can tout a solid 52-36 approval/disapproval rating in a recent Morning Consult survey; he held a double-digit lead against his two leading GOP rivals in a poll conducted in August. But once Republicans settle on a nominee, those numbers are going to take a hit. Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey are the two leading candidates in the state’s May 8 primary.
Already, the White House is telegraphing an aggressive campaign designed to puncture Manchin’s well-crafted image as a bipartisan operator. Pence campaigned in West Virginia last month and sharply criticized the senator for voting against the administration’s tax legislation. The vice president’s official Twitter handle contained snippets of his attacks against Manchin, with the tagline #JoeVotedNo. A subsequent Politico story details how Pence felt blindsided by Manchin’s opposition to tax reform despite earlier pledges to work with the White House on the issue. (Manchin claims he was looking for concessions to make the legislation skew less to the wealthy, which he says were never offered.)
In reality, this looks like the beginning of a coordinated effort to begin the midterm campaign. The tax bill, which was broadly unpopular when it was passed, has been growing in popularity since then. Manchin’s opposition, which looked politically defensible at the time, is now turning into an ideal issue for Republicans to use against him in the campaign. Indeed, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Senate Leadership Fund went up with radio ads highlighting Pence’s attack on Manchin.
Another warning sign for Manchin is his underwhelming fundraising. He raised just $850,000 in the last three months of 2017—he was the only targeted Senate Democrat not to hit the million-dollar mark. (He has banked a healthier $4.7 million in his campaign account.) Morrisey came close to matching Manchin’s total with $739,000 raised in the last quarter, while Jenkins has disappointed with his fundraising, barely topping $200,000 in the same period.
Actions speak louder than polling, and all indications point to Manchin as one of the most vulnerable Democrats on a ballot this year. At a time when voters are acting in a deeply partisan manner, Manchin will need to rely on a significant share of Trump voters to win another term. If he does, it will prove that strong candidates still can win congressional races in tough territory. If not, it will be a textbook lesson on just how polarized our politics have become.