"Millions against Manchin": How West Virginia has become the strangest battleground state

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Alternate headline: Joe Manchin knows how to bring home the media bacon! Punchbowl keeps tabs on political spending in key states, and claims that political activists have spent at least $10 million in West Virginia to either influence Manchin, bully him, or prepare the ground for a 2024 challenge to the incumbent Democrat.

What have progressives gotten for the cash? Not much, as Manchin has largely stuck to his positions regardless, but Mountain State TV and radio stations must be loving this:

Over the last year, we’ve noticed a big chunk of issue ads targeting Manchin back home. The reasons here are obvious: He’s the critical Democratic vote on nearly every issue that comprises President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda: everything from voting rights to the Build Back Better Act, to nominations and more.

We should note that buying airtime in most of the West Virginia media markets is cheap compared to bigger population centers – in other words, $10 million goes a long way. Furthermore, 2021 was not an election year, so the airwaves aren’t exactly packed with ads. And, on top of that, we only calculated ads that were directly targeting Manchin. We noticed a number of other spots that were obliquely about Manchin, but we decided to leave those out. These totals were compiled by our friends at AdImpact at our request.

The ads touched on a wide range of issues. They’ve targeted Manchin on filibuster reform, BBB, the For the People Act, David Chipman’s nomination as ATF director, his own Freedom to Vote Act, paid family and medical leave, child care, home care, rising inflation and more.

How much of this $10 million total is “against” Manchin, though? Not all of it, but a large portion of it:

→ BBB: Progressive groups outspent their conservative counterparts on Manchin-aimed Build Back Better ads running in West Virginia. The left spent $1.7 million and the right spent ​​$1.5 million. …

→ Voting rights and election reform: While Manchin’s BBB stance has grabbed headlines of late, the largest issue expenditure of 2021 in West Virginia was on the voting rights and election reform front. Liberal groups, led by West Virginia Freedom Alliance Action Fund and End Citizens United/Let America Vote, spent at least $4.3 million urging Manchin to support changes to the way Americans vote and the filibuster. … Conservative groups, for their part, bought $941,698 worth of ads calling on Manchin to keep the filibuster intact and to vote down election reform.

That’s a lot of money to spend on a lost cause. On a Beto O’Rourke scale, it might only rate a 6 out of 10 for waste. However, the context matters here too. Democrats were spending this cash in deep-red West Virginia at the same time they were losing all statewide-office elections and legislative control in neighboring Virginia, nearly losing the gubernatorial election in New Jersey, and other off-year elections. Would $10 million have made any difference for progressives in those elections? Maybe not, but at least it had a better chance of making an impact in nearly any other state than West Virginia.

The problem is even more basic, Charles Lane pointed out yesterday at the Washington Post. The messaging on Build Back Better in West Virginia fails to acknowledge that West Virginians will see little of the bill’s benefits, in what Lane diagnoses as a failure of basic politics. If Democrats wanted Manchin on their side, they should have drafted a bill that would have benefited his constituents:

There would have to be a lot in BBB for his home state to overcome Manchin’s ostensible concerns about inflation and such. There’s not: To the contrary, it’s hard to imagine a bill that would have been more difficult for any senator from West Virginia, Democrat or Republican, to support. …

The point here is not to endorse Manchin’s “no” on BBB. It’s true, as Manchin’s critics assert, that West Virginians could benefit from letting Medicare bargain for lower drug costs, or from an expanded child tax credit, and that Manchin’s objections could doom those.

What matters politically, though, is that these benefits are not uniquely advantageous for his state — whereas other provisions are particularly disadvantageous, or could plausibly be portrayed as such by Manchin’s opponents. That was still true even after the White House removed a $150 billion clean-electricity provision at Manchin’s request.

At times, Manchin’s motivations for resisting BBB have been portrayed as a “mystery.” The real mystery is why the White House and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) bet their political future on getting Manchin to vote for a bill such as this one.

Lane’s just as mystified as Manchin presumably is at this basic failure. It demonstrates just how much the Democrats’ party leadership from Biden on down has been captured by its far-Left wing and its coastal elites, the very beneficiaries of the House version of BBB, as Lane lays out. Instead of working with Manchin up front to craft a bill he could support, the White House and Democratic leadership in Congress tried to jam it down his throat, and then conducted a $10 million political campaign against him in a state that’s already completely soured on Democrats.

Manchin still may refuse to switch parties — he’s heavily invested in his independent-Democrat political identity — but his political survival may give him no choice. And his own party is largely to blame for it. Amazing.