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Joe Manchin’s Primary Opponent Taps Into Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Momentum

Rebecca Turnbull

“Democrats are tired of not having a Democratic candidate. When you have Democrats that act like Republicans, they’re not Democrats anymore," said Paula Jean Swearengin, Sen. Joe Manchin's Democratic primary opponent.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), one of the least popular members of the U.S. Senate, faces a progressive challenge in a state won in a landslide by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

A Morning Consult poll released this month indicates Manchin’s job approval dropped from 60 percent to 43 percent between the fourth quarter of 2017 and the first quarter of 2018. 

Manchin’s precipitous drop in job approval has made the former West Virginia governor the fifth least popular senator, according to the poll. The poll results follow Senate race ratings released this month by the Cook Political Report, which dubbed Manchin’s seat as a competitive “toss-up” that could fall to either party in November’s midterm election.

Manchin’s political affiliation has been difficult to pin down thanks to his tendency to vote in line with President Trump’s position 61 percent of the time, including the president’s funding attack against so-called sanctuary cities. The New York Times has dubbed Manchin, who met last year with the architects of a discredited smear campaign against Planned Parenthood, “the most conservative Democrat in the Senate.”

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Manchin’s opponent in the state’s upcoming Democratic primary, Paula Jean Swearengin of Mullens, West Virginia, is following Sanders’ leftward trend, including refusing corporate PAC contributions. She hopes to continue the work Sanders started when he drew working class support with a populist platform, as Swearengin has trumpeted progressive priorities like tuition-free prekindergarten and college, a minimum wage increase, and Medicare for all. Manchin is not among the 16 Democratic senators who have co-sponsored Sanders’ Medicare-for-all bill.

Meanwhile, 55 percent of voters who backed Sanders in the 2016 West Virginia primary identified health care as their most important issue. Two-thirds of Sanders voters in West Virginia said the next president should be more liberal, according to CNN exit polling

“This used to be a Democratic state,” Swearengin said in an interview with Rewire.News. “Democrats are tired of not having a Democratic candidate. When you have Democrats that act like Republicans, they’re not Democrats anymore.”

Swearengin said she is aware of the challenges she faces in running for a Senate seat in a state that overwhelmingly voted for Trump, but she believes West Virginians are primarily looking for a candidate who understands working class needs and seeks to diversify the state’s economy outside of the push for natural gas.

“The people in this state are hungry for real change,” Swearengin said. “And if we do not try to fight back and put a real Democrat in that seat to stand for the people of West Virginia, we’re in big trouble.”

“Joe Manchin is well-known, but he is not popular, because he calls it a ‘bipartisan effort,’ but we know that he serves his funders,” she said. 

Swearengin is the only candidate running for Manchin’s Senate seat who has only accepted campaign donations from individuals, as opposed to corporations or corporate PACs.

However, these and other reports of Manchin’s dwindling chances in the upcoming general election have been foreshadowed by West Virginia voters’ historic, steadily increasing support for the Republican Party.

All 55 counties were carried by Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, while in 2014, both chambers of the West Virginia legislature switched to Republican control for the first time since the 1930s. Republicans won all of the state’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since 1921.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced his switch to the Republican Party during a rally with President Trump in 2017, after being elected as a Democrat the year before. President Trump carried the state with a whopping 69 percent of the state’s vote in November 2016.

Despite Trump’s sagging approval rating, a Gallup poll released in late January found that West Virginia voters still remain among his most ardent supporters, giving him a 61 percent approval rating in 2017, compared to the then-national average of 38 percent, which has since crept to 40 percent.

As for what has caused this historic shift in West Virginia, state GOP Chair Melody Potter said Democratic policies have harmed the working class“Our state has been turning red because people are tired of 83 years of Democrat rule in West Virginia,” Potter said in an interview with Rewire.News, “which brought higher taxes, terrible energy policies, and low jobs.”

Potter said West Virginia’s notable Republican support in the 2016 presidential election only proves the point that the state is looking for a party change.

West Virginia Democratic Party Chair Belinda Biafore said that sentiment only exists on a national level. She said Democrats still hold the majority of local offices in West Virginia courts and municipalities.

Biafore and Manchin’s backers, including the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), said they remain optimistic about Manchin’s chances for re-election.

“The seat’s going to be vulnerable just because of how well Trump did there, but West Virginia’s not like everywhere else,” said Phil Smith, UMWA communications and governmental affairs director. “They’re not like other folks who may look at party before people. They’re used to voting for Joe Manchin for things. He’s always come through for them. And I think they’re going to do it again.”

The Cook Political Report Senior Editor Jennifer Duffy told Fox News last week that only conservative Democrats like Manchin could win in West Virginia.

Biafore said she finds this to be true, for now.

“I think that [moderateness] helps him, definitely,” Biafore said. “West Virginia Democrats are a little bit more moderate than a lot of states. There’s not enough liberal Democrats to win to win races right now when you look at our electorate. You have to win votes. You have to look at the whole picture.”

Gary Zuckett, executive director of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, said Manchin’s “wiggle room” as the state’s highest Democratic leader is needed to effectively secure measures needed to protect the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

“He prides himself on working across the aisle,” Zuckett said. “When you look how things get done in Congress, that’s when things get done, is when the two parties work together for the betterment of the country as a whole.”

Zuckett said West Virginians are recognizing the importance of having a Democrat on Capitol Hill to advocate for social programs they use, primarily health care, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. In 2015, nearly one-third of the state’s population relied on Medicaid and CHIP programs that Republicans have sought to gut through the proposed Affordable Care Act repeal.

“I don’t think they got what they voted for, and I think a lot of people are realizing that,” Zuckett said. “We’ve been sort of a mono-economy for much of the state’s history, so we need these social programs to continue. But it seems like Republicans are hellbent on dismantling these programs that support working families and people in need.”

That mono-economy of the coal industry played a significant part in West Virginians’ rejection of Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate after she said a Clinton administration would put “a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Clinton won just 26 percent of the state’s vote in the 2016 presidential election.

Her opponent in the Democratic primary, Sanders, beat Clinton in West Virginia by 14 percentage points. Sanders drew widespread support from voters in households that earn less than $50,000 annually, while capturing 70 percent of the vote from those aged 17-29. Fifty-four percent of West Virginia Democratic primary voters who identified as “very liberal” voted for Sanders, while 41 percent supported Clinton. 

Republican candidates running for Manchin’s seat include Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV), West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R-WV) and former Massey Energy chairman and CEO Don Blankenship.

Manchin’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

West Virginia has a mixed primary, in which party members may vote only in their own party’s primary, but voters who are unaffiliated with the two major parties may participate in one party’s primary. The primary election will take place Tuesday, May 8, 2018.

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