Senator Joseph Manchin III (D-WV) is not a relatively well-known figure in national politics. Unlike many of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate, he did not seek the presidency in the 2020 election, nor did he campaign frequently for President Biden, or make the short list for a coveted Cabinet position. That said, the reason he remains a key figure in American politics, and will for the next two years can be found in the first sentence written above. He is the Democratic Senator from West Virginia. In the state where former President Trump won the 2020 election by a margin of 38.9 percentage points, the Republican incumbent Senator beat her Democratic challenger by more than 43 points, and all three of the state’s seats in the House of Representatives are held by Republicans, Senator Manchin has won, and continues to do so. However, he is not what many would describe as a “typical” Democrat. He is firmly pro-life, a stance different from the vast majority of his party, and he is consistently in favor of fossil fuel sourced energy.
Born on August 24th, 1947 in Farmington, WV, he began his career as a businessman before turning to politics. Both his father and grandfather served as the mayor of Farmington and owned small businesses in the town. After graduating high school, he earned a degree in business administration from West Virginia University in 1970. After spending a decade working for his family’s business, he ran for a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1982. After serving for four years, he won a seat in the West Virginia Senate. In 2001 he was elected Secretary of State of West Virginia, and after a four year term, won the race to be the 34th governor of the state. As Governor, he was an active member of the National Governors Association, the Southern Governors Association, and the Dmocratic Governors Association. He served as the Chair of the National Governors Association for a few months, as well as the chair of the Democratic Governors Association.
Needless to say, as the only state-wide elected Democrat in West Virginia, his electoral success is owed to his political savvy and views that cross party lines. While his personal focus has been on energy policy―Manchin currently serves as the Chair of the Senate Energy Committee―his office requires him to take positions across all issues. Most notably, he was endorsed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) during his 2012 Senate campaign and following the Sandy Hook shooting, he co-sponsored a bipartisan comprehensive background check bill which eventually failed. Many progressive Democrats have called for the elimination of the filibuster which would remove the sixty vote requirement for legislation to pass in the Senate and significantly ease the passage of bills given Democrats’ tight majority. Manchin has vocally opposed this effort, in addition to other “progressive” plans like increasing the number of justices on the Supreme Court, and raising the federal minimum wage to fifteen dollars per hour. His opposition, paired with the concurrence of fellow Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, all but ensures that none of these proposals will pass the current Congress, placing Manchin in the key position of a moderator of the Democratic agenda.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s “Trump Score,” a tool which documents the frequency that members of Congress voted with the former president, Manchin has a career record of 50.4%. Compared to his Senate Democrat colleagues, he ranks the highest among them, tied only with Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). His ranking is, however, roughly fifteen percentage points lower than the most liberal Republican, Susan Collins (R-ME) who Manchin endorsed over her Democratic rival Sara Gideon in 2020. However, Senator Manchin’s political relevance is rooted in the fact that the Senate is currently split 50-50 with Vice President Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote. In this way, Manchin has the ability to seriously help or hinder Democrats’ agenda in the coming two years, assuming the power balance remains the same. For example, Senate Republicans have expressed opposition to President Biden’s proposed COVID relief package to which Democrats have responded by moving to pass the bill through budget reconciliation, a process that only requires a simple majority as opposed to the typical sixty vote minimum. Manchin has expressed his displeasure with voting for such a measure, meaning that he personally controls the fate of this bill. As President Biden moves down his legislative agenda list, Manchin will likely be the first person he calls to ensure the Senator will vote for the bill.
As Senator Manchin’s name becomes increasingly present in political conversations, the question must be raised of the fate of such politicians in Washington. The 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections saw the solidification of party unity within states, and we today have the fewest number of split Senate delegations since the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1914 (which made Senators directly elected state-wide). A move towards hyper-partisanship in the political landscape makes those willing to work across the aisle or vote with the other party’s president increasingly vulnerable to primary challenges and inter-party ire. Manchin faces a difficult battle, but remains one of the most powerful men in Washington―so long as he holds his seat.