Aha: Trump considering Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin for Secretary of Energy

So Trump’s meeting with another Democrat, Heidi Heitkamp, wasn’t just a one-off thing. It’s part of a broader strategy to turn the Senate a deeper shade of red by kicking a few centrist Dems upstairs.

Appointing Manchin would serve two purposes, actually — freeing up his Senate seat and rewarding West Virginia, Manchin’s home state, for handing Trump one of his most lopsided margins of victory on election day.

President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team is considering Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia for the energy secretary job, according to three sources close to the discussions.

The conservative Democrat “is being considered to show the coal people how serious Trump is about coal,” one source said…

“If I can do anything that would help my state of West Virginia, and my country, I would be happy to talk to anybody,” he told POLITICO. “Other than that, I haven’t heard anything … I have nothing scheduled.”

Manchin hasn’t been contacted (yet?) by Trump’s transition team, which makes me wonder if there’s less to this than meets the eye. Maybe Team Trump just wanted a way to reassure the coal industry that Trump has their interests in mind; claiming that they’re looking at Manchin even if they aren’t really looking at Manchin is one way to do that.

If they’re serious about him, though, then putting him in the cabinet would be an obvious way to solidify Republican control of the Senate, especially if Heitkamp also ends up with a job. Assuming the GOP wins Louisiana’s Senate runoff later this month, Republicans will hold a 52/48 advantage in January. Nominating Heitkamp as Secretary of Agriculture would force a vacancy that would be filled via special election in North Dakota. A red state like that is likely to replace her with a Republican, which would push it to 53/47. Boot Manchin into the Energy department and have his very red state replace him with a Republican too and now you’re looking at 54/46 — the same margin the GOP enjoys right now. And that’s a big deal because the Senate map in 2018 is very favorable to Republicans. If the GOP knocks off other red-staters like Jon Tester, Joe Donnelly, and Claire McCaskill two years from now, they’ll be creeping up on a 60-seat majority. McConnell won’t need to worry about ending the filibuster anymore. Democrats might not have the numbers to mount a filibuster to begin with.

But wait. Replacing Heitkamp with a Republican is straightforward: The state’s special election will take care of it. Replacing Manchin with one is more complicated. West Virginia fills Senate vacancies via gubernatorial appointment, not special elections. And despite the fact that it’s one of America’s reddest states, the governor of West Virginia is a Democrat, Earl Ray Tomblin. He would come under heavy pressure from his party to replace Manchin with a fellow Democrat, even though most of the state votes Republican, in order to protect some of Chuck Schumer’s leverage in the Senate. That’s the bad news for the GOP. The good news is that Manchin’s Democratic replacement would serve only two years before he’d have to face a Republican challenger for the seat in 2018, and virtually any Democrat Tomblin might name would be easier to beat than Manchin would. Remember, before he was a senator, Manchin was the governor of the state; he had five years’ worth of universal name recognition, which made him a tough opponent for Republicans. Tomblin’s appointee might be a nobody, and a nobody will have trouble winning in a state as red as WV. The GOP will flip Manchin’s seat, it’ll just take two years longer than they’d like to do it.

…Unless, that is, Tomblin appoints himself to fill Manchin’s seat (or appoints a placeholder who’ll stand aside in 2018 so that Tomblin can run, which is what Manchin did as governor when filling Robert Byrd’s vacancy). He’s won two gubernatorial elections and enjoys the same sort of name-recognition advantage that Manchin did when he ran for Senate. Beating him is no gimme. Does Trump really want to appoint a Democrat to head the Department of Energy when the GOP picking up his Senate seat as compensation isn’t a sure thing? Also, has McConnell, Cornyn, or Trump tried reaching out to Manchin and offering him anything to switch parties? He’s going to end up voting with Trump on many issues anyway just to stay on the right side of public opinion back home. If they can flip him without handing him a cabinet position, so much the better.

Exit question: Are there any tea leaves in this about whether Trump will be more or less inclined to bring back nuclear power plants back to the U.S.? His campaign mentioned nuclear as part of the solution to America’s energy needs but advocates for nuclear energy worry that his skepticism of climate change will make him favor fossil fuels. If he has Manchin, a coal advocate, at Energy, maybe that’s another sign that nuclear will be low priority.