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New Dem midterm strategy: Run against ... Joe Manchin?

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Every party has to have its bete noire for a national election cycle. Republicans used Nancy Pelosi for years in that cycle, with variable effectiveness. Democrats wanted to make Donald Trump that bete noire this cycle, but realized belatedly that no one really believes he’s on the ballot … unlike Pelosi.

So what’s Plan B for Democrats? Demonizing one of their own, NBC News notices:

Sen. Joe Manchin has been labeled the most powerful man in Washington for his willingness to single-handedly tank President Joe Biden’s agenda. But on the Democratic campaign trail in 2022, Manchin, the centrist from West Virginia, is a target of derision.

Democrats with some conservative policy positions are being scornfully compared to him by rivals appealing to primary voters to carry the party’s torch. Manchin has become a one-man power center in the 50-50 Senate, flexing his muscles for and against his party as he represents a ruby-red state Biden lost by 39 points.

Jessica Cisneros, who is seeking to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas in a competitive primary runoff May 24, likened Cuellar to Manchin for his willingness to be the only House Democrat to vote against legislation to codify abortion rights.

“The Joe Manchin of the House,” is how Cisneros describes Cuellar. The progressive challenger isn’t alone with that branding, either. A progressive primary challenger in Oregon used the same epithet to describe the current incumbent as well:

In a competitive primary in Oregon, Rep. Kurt Schrader, an elusive vote for Biden’s priorities, is being compared to Manchin by Democratic rival Jamie McLeod-Skinner.

“He’s like the Joe Manchin of the House,” McLeod-Skinner said in an interview. “Just like Joe Manchin right now is blocking our country moving forward on some really important recovery legislation and agenda, Kurt has blocked and stripped things out and watered things down in the House.”

In the Pennsylvania Senate race, progressive favorite John Fetterman also accused Conor Lamb of being a “Joe Manchin Democrat.” Fetterman went further to claim that Manchin mentored Lamb on Capitol Hill.

What do all three of these campaigns have in common? First, they’re all Democratic primaries, of course. But more importantly, none of these contests are being fought in progressive bastions. Cuellar’s TX-28 district has only a D+5 Cook Index rating, for instance, and Joe Biden only won it by four points in 2020. Shrader’s 5th congressional district in Oregon is even more neutral at D+2. The Cook Index for Pennsylvania is R+2, although Democrats usually do well in statewide elections there. It’s certainly not a blue state in the mold of California, New York, or Massachusetts, where Joe Manchin’s brand of politics might fall outside the norm. Cook rates the gubernatorial contest in Pennsylvania a toss-up at the moment, in fact.

With that in mind, how do voters see themselves in these election contests, especially in a general election, using the Senate Democratic Sliding Scale? Should we assume that a D+5 electorate would view itself closer to the Bernie Sanders end of the spectrum, or to the Joe Manchin end? How about the D+2 electorate? R+2? I’d guess that all three will see themselves much closer to the Manchin end, especially when it comes to a general election.

The problem for the progressives, and for the Democratic Party leadership in their thrall, is that they continue to believe their own press. They are utterly convinced of the Emerging Progressive Majority, despite all evidence to the contrary. In their minds, the main problem with Joe Biden’s polling collapse is that he has been insufficiently progressive — even though he has invested himself almost fully into the Bernie Sanders’ campaign agenda. Had Manchin not stopped Biden’s plan from going forward, the benefits would already have made Biden incredibly popular, or so they think.

That illusion should have come to a screeching halt after last year’s elections in Virginia. The state had been trending blue for a long while, thanks to expansion and encroachment in Northern Virginia by the Beltway. Terry McAuliffe had won a relatively easy election during the Obama years by painting himself as a sort of progressive moderate in the Bill Clinton mold. This time around, however, McAuliffe went full progressive in a state that’s only really D+2 … and ended up losing to Glenn Youngkin and his populist parental revolt against progressive indoctrination in schools.

Interestingly, Democrats appear ready to make this same mistake on abortion, too. This cycle seems particularly unsuited for abortion as a top-tier issue even with a reversal of Roe pending, but Democrats don’t have any answers for the issues that do matter to voters — inflation, crime, shortages, and so on. Abortion at least can fire up the base, but only the base, especially how Democrats have begun to use it.

Rather than opt for a legislative solution that represents the vast moderate middle of the electorate on abortion, Chuck Schumer and his fellow progressives have offered a radical, absolutist abortion-at-all-stages bill that would eliminate even religious objections by providers for abortion, up to the moment of birth. This also makes Manchin the bad guy — he already says he won’t vote for the bill — when Manchin represents far more voters on this issue that Schumer and his bill does. Plus, it plays right into Republican hands by giving them plenty of evidence of Democrats’ radical and extreme turn.

Democrats shouldn’t make Manchin their poster boy for the midterms. They should use him as their canary in the coal mine.