Tanking Biden's agenda has made Joe Manchin one of the most popular senators in the country

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Turns out there are worse things politically than being known as the man who repeatedly said no to a president with a 40 percent approval rating.

Especially if you happen to represent a state where that president lost by 39 points in the last election.

Morning Consult brings news today that Joe Manchin has turned political gravity upside down, becoming the eighth-most popular senator in the U.S. as measured by job approval in his home state. But Manchin enjoys a distinction that none of the rest of the top 10 can claim: He’s the only one of the bunch to belong to his state’s *minority* party. The other popular senators are either Republicans representing deep red states (John Barrasso, John Hoeven) or Democrats representing deep blue ones (Pat Leahy, Ed Markey).

Interestingly, first and fourth place in the top 10 go to John Thune and Mike Rounds, respectively, each of whom has crossed Trump by defending the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Trump’s “stop the steal” hysteria and iron grip on the party haven’t done much to endanger Thune or Rounds if Morning Consult’s numbers are right.

Manchin has gained 16 points in approval in West Virginia since the first quarter of 2021, easily the best stretch of any member of the Senate. Over that period he singlehandedly derailed the Build Back Better bill and stood with Kyrsten Sinema in defense of preserving the filibuster despite tremendous pressure from the left to ditch it and pass a voting rights bill. Republican voters have been watching closely and like what they see. Independents like it too. Democrats … do not like it, but enough Manchinite Dems remain in West Virginia to help boost him to a 57/35 approval rating overall.

He’s at 69/24 — among Republicans. Remember last week when we all laughed at that group of megadonors for thinking he should run for the GOP nomination in 2024?

That’s still a ridiculously silly idea that would go nowhere, but the prospect of Manchin running as an independent against two unpopular major-party nominees like Biden and Trump in 2024 is an intriguing one.

Manchin/Sinema 2024, buddy. If any ticket can pull just enough votes from the Democrats to hand Trump a second term, it’s them!

I’d be curious to know how many U.S. senators, or politicians at any level these days, are net positive in approval with the other party, let alone at +45. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins are narrowly more popular than unpopular among Democrats in their states for having opposed Trump on impeachment. But that +45 is a de facto case of party-switching in spirit if not in name. One might look at it and wonder why Manchin doesn’t just follow through and become a Republican, as that would probably help his reelection prospects in deep red West Virginia.

But would it really? If he switched parties, he’d be a liberal-leaning Republican (who just voted for Biden’s SCOTUS nominee, for instance) instead of a conservative-leaning Democrat. He might pick up a few extra Republican points in approval by doing so but my guess is that the bottom would fall out of his support among West Virginia Dems, collapsing from a still-respectable 44 percent to somewhere in the 20s due to his betrayal of his partisan tribe. I think Manchin’s current niche is a cushy spot, allowing him to keep Dems placated by caucusing with Schumer and maintaining their party’s majority while thrilling Republicans by shanking Biden on all of his big agenda items.

If his Senate election were held today he’d be the favorite to win again, which is damn near miraculous as a Democrat in one of the most Republican states in the country. Remember, Biden won California and Massachusetts in 2020 by slightly narrower margins than Trump won West Virginia. That’s how red Appalachia is. And yet Manchin is performing feats of political wonder there.

You may be wondering how his partner in centrism, Sinema, is faring in Arizona. She’s actually in the bottom 10 of senators in disapproval, landing at 44/42. Like Manchin, at last check Sinema had also seen gains with Republicans and a decline among Democrats in her home state thanks to her support for the filibuster and her insistence on driving a hard bargain on BBB. Unlike Manchin, however, she doesn’t represent a Trump +39 state. Becoming more popular with the right while becoming less popular with the left is a major boon to a politician in West Virginia. But in a 50/50 state like Arizona, it’s a wash at best and maybe a net negative at worst. Manchin has no fear of being successfully primaried, after all, since Dems know that no other nominee stands a chance of winning in WV. That’s not the case in AZ, which is why Sinema may well end up a one-termer.

Oh, by the way. The least popular senator in all the land, at least as rated by his home state? Mitch McConnell, of course, who’s at 33/60 in Kentucky. Democrats have despised him for decades because he’s a smart and cutthroat Republican leader and MAGA Republicans have despised him for the past 15 months because Trump bears him a grudge for opposing the “stop the steal” campaign. No one likes Mitch. And yet, if he were up for reelection today, I’d guess he wins by 15-20 points. That’s just how Kentucky rolls.