PARKERSBURG, West Virginia — “You can hit me better now; I’m a better target,” Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin told a group of his West Virginia constituents as he mounted a small dais Wednesday morning.
Manchin has a tough job. He’s a Democrat running for re-election next year in a state where Trump won 68 percent of the vote, more than anywhere but Wyoming. He is the last remaining Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation. And while most Democrats in Congress have stood firmly opposed to Trump, Manchin has been more accommodating, voting for several of the president’s most controversial nominees, including Judge Neil Gorsuch for Supreme Court justice.
“I know some people are upset,” Manchin acknowledged in a wind-up introduction speech to the mostly liberal crowd of about 200 at West Virginia University at Parkersburg. Progressives have been packing town hall meetings like Manchin’s across the country of late, expressing their anger to Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike about Trump’s agenda.
In a dozen interviews with VICE News before the town hall, Democratic constituents fumed about Manchin, and some even said they wanted to see him opposed from the left in the next primary. But Manchin’s answers to questions at the town hall seemed to calm the rage — at least temporarily.
There were a few guffaws, heckles, and boos, but the crowd mostly waved green sheets of paper at Manchin — a sign of support in recent town halls around the country.
Manchin voted for some Trump nominees, but he came out swinging against most of the Trump administration’s early agenda, including Trumpcare, the proposed budget, defunding Planned Parenthood, the border wall, and what Manchin called the “oligarchy in America” that allows a few families to funnel millions upon millions of dollars into politics.
Of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Manchin said, “We agree on a lot of things.”
“We were thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to hear he was opposed to this budget,” said Jeanne Peters, one of the founding organizers of a local Indivisible group, a national network of local organizations created after the election to fight the Trump agenda.
“He did a great job,” said Daryl Cobranchi, the chair of the county’s Democratic Executive Committee.
Manchin told VICE News afterward that his opposition to Trump’s agenda was less about changing his own positions and more about Trump’s decisions to go after Obamacare and release a rigidly ideological budget proposal.
“I told [the Trump administration] not to go down that rabbit hole of repealing the Affordable Care Act,” Manchin said. Of Trump’s proposed budget, he added, “Some people out there want to starve the beast, but I think we have to be compassionate.”
Manchin, who has served in the Senate since 2010 and was formerly the governor of West Virginia, is perhaps the Republicans’ No. 1 target for defeat in 2018 — and he may have to survive a challenge from his left during the primary, all while trying not to alienate the nearly 70 percent of voters who cast their ballots for Trump last November. It’s a needle he’s threaded before; in 2012 Manchin won his West Virginia seat with 60 percent of votes even while Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won 63 percent.
Several of the split-ticket voters on whom Manchin relies were at the town hall, expressing appreciation that the senator is willing to cross party lines.
“We came here to thank him for being one of the few Democrats willing to protect life,” said 62-year-old Patty Cooper, who’s on the board of directors of West Virginia for Life. Afterward, she reiterated how “proud” she was of Manchin for articulating his position on abortion and said he’ll be the only Democrat she and her family vote for in 2018.
Manchin’s political calibration is so fine-tuned that Alisa Clements, the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood’s South Atlantic region, also expressed support for him, saying, “I’m happy and heartened that he is reaffirming and saying that Planned Parenthood does great work.”
In other words, Manchin managed to pull off the seemingly impossible feat of pleasing people on both sides of the abortion debate by being pro-life while opposing the defunding of Planned Parenthood.
After West Virginia went so heavily for Trump, Manchin tried to find common ground with the president. On Congress’ second day in session in January, he skipped a meeting with President Barack Obama about protecting Obamacare, choosing instead to meet privately with Vice President–elect Mike Pence.
Manchin tweeted afterwards that he was “finding ways to work with [Pence] in the future.”
Manchin was the first Democrat to announce his support for Gorsuch in addition to voting for Trump appointments like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt. Such accommodation earned Manchin the ire of many progressives, who have said they want to oppose him in the 2018 Democratic primary. We Will Replace You, a liberal hyrbid PAC staffed by many members of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, has started to raise money to support any Manchin challenger. They’ve raised $6,500 so far in mostly small donations; Manchin has more than $1 million cash on hand.
The senator may have made the best argument for his aisle-crossing when discussing his vote to confirm Sessions. Instead of a concession to Trump, he described it as a savvy move that gives him leverage with the new administration.
“I’m now the only Democrat,” Manchin said, “who can call Jeff Sessions and say, ‘This is wrong.’”