When Joe Manchin was in the fight of his political life, vying for reelection in a state where being a Democrat had long been out of fashion, the senator’s opening message to voters focused on the place he knew best: Farmington, West Virginia.
Manchin argued throughout his last reelection campaign that it was his upbringing in the small Appalachian town set on the banks of Buffalo Creek – from working at his family’s local grocery store to watching how relationships in his hometown transcended political lines – that helped make him a politician who would listen to even his most ardent detractors and use his power to make sure every bipartisan avenue was exhausted before he picked the best option for the people of his state.
That persona has served Manchin well, to date. He’s survived election after election in this increasingly Republican bastion to become the most conservative Democrat in an evenly divided Senate – a role that allows him to put his stamp on anything his party wants to accomplish, which includes just about everything these days. Manchin has wielded this influence to change the coronavirus relief package, force Democrats to try and work with Republicans on infrastructure and squash any talk of getting rid of Senate rules that would make it easier for the Democrats, currently in the majority, to pass President Joe Biden’s agenda.
But back home, Manchin is facing a set of opposing forces. Republicans in the state, loyal to former President Donald Trump and consumed with the partisan politics of the moment, have grown annoyed at how Manchin signals a willingness to break with Democrats but often votes with the party in the end. And many Democrats in the state, worn down by years of Republican domination, worry that Manchin’s undying focus on bipartisanship is no longer possible when the Republican Party is unwilling to meet in the middle.
This tension has forced the tenets of Manchin’s personal and political story to run up against a changing world.
Farmington, the town that made Manchin, has fallen on hard times in recent years, struggling to hold on to population as jobs have moved elsewhere and local businesses have shuttered. And Manchin’s brand of bipartisan politics, one partially informed by the mentorship he enjoyed from the late Sen. Robert Byrd, is that of a bygone era, as partisan politics and party line votes take hold everywhere from Washington to the state capital of Charleston.
Conversations with more than 15 West Virginians a day after Manchin told CNN he has no intention of changing his approach, revealed both a deep respect for Manchin’s desire for bipartisanship and a growing impatience that questioned whether such agreement was possible any longer.
“As much as I appreciate Joe’s ideal – maybe that is where his heart is at and maybe that is because of his roots – there has to come a time when you have to realize (Republicans) are not going to sit down and hold hands and sing kumbaya,” said Donna Costello, the former mayor of Manchin’s hometown and a longtime friend of the Manchin family. “And you have to do what is in the best interest of what put you there.”
Manchin, 73, is now the only Democrat holding statewide office in West Virginia. Top Democrats in the state know if he were not in his Senate seat, a Republican invariably would be. And plenty of voters, including those who voted for Trump multiple times, are proud that their senator, even though he is a Democrat, is willing to try and make bipartisanship work.
“You have to meet somewhere in the middle,” said John Ross, a Marion County voter who worked at the Manchin family’s carpet store in the 1980s. Ross voted for former President Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020, but during Manchin’s 2018 reelection campaign, he backed his old friend. “You have to be able to have a common goal – what’s in the best interest of our country and use common sense.”
But as Republican election officials nationwide have hardened toward working with Democrats, so have West Virginians who, like the state, have moved to the right in recent years and, looking at their own transformation, would like their Democratic senator to do the same.
“I am not a tremendous fan just because he doesn’t know which way he is playing,” said Lucinda Powell, a former Democrat and bail bonds manager in Fairmont. “One minute he goes with the Democrats, one minute he goes with the Republicans. Pick a side and go with it.”
‘The middle ground could be found’
Manchin’s upbringing centered on understanding and hard work.
For a long time in the state, it was Republicans, not Democrats, who needed to find political friends on the left to get anything done. And as Manchin rose through local politics, first as a member of the House of Delegates, then as a state senator, secretary of state and finally governor, Manchin was known for including Republicans in negotiations, even if Democrats enjoyed sizable majorities in the state.
“He told me one time, I will never forget, if you have an issue where you cannot get one vote to go with you from the other party, regardless of who is in the majority … it is probably a bad idea,” recalled Mike Caputo, a Democratic state senator in West Virginia who served as majority whip in the House of Delegates during Manchin’s time as governor.
He added: “Joe has always been the kind of guy that has always believed you can find common ground if you work hard enough. I know when he was governor, we had major disagreements, but he always believed that if we talked long enough and both sides wanted to find a resolution, the middle ground could be found.”
Manchin signaled this position remains inside him in an interview on Thursday, telling CNN’s Manu Raju that he was not ready to get rid of the Senate legislative filibuster, a move that would allow Democrats to do more without Republican support.
“We’re going to make the place work, and you can’t make it work unless the minority has input,” Manchin said, defending the filibuster. “You can’t disregard a person that’s not in the majority, the Senate was never designed that way.”
Small town roots inform bipartisan focus
It is impossible to miss Manchin’s connections to his hometown.
As you get closer to the village, the Manchin name begins to appear everywhere. The local clinic bears his family’s name, there are signs heading into town that proclaim Farmington the “Home of Joe Manchin III” and there is even a throwback sign that recalls the days when Manchin’s grandfather, affectionately known as Papa Joe, ran a grocery store in the community.
Manchin lived an idyllic life in town. He grew up helping in the family’s grocery business and played quarterback at the local high school, eventually earning a football scholarship to West Virginia University before an injury cut short his athletic career. His high school yearbook described him as “Athletics come natural.” And a full page in the yearbook blared, “What Will We Do In Track Without Joe?”
Members of the extended Manchin family still call the town home, including the senator’s sister, who lives in the brick house that the family grew up in close to the creek.
But the town that shaped Manchin changed years ago, people in the community say. As coal production in West Virginia began to fall, so did the coal mining jobs, the local businesses and the grocery stores that went with it. The town, with a population of roughly 400 people, is now a shell of its former self. A bright bakery anchors the main road through town, along with a Family Dollar – the replacement to the multiple local grocery stores the town once enjoyed – and a health clinic bearing Manchin’s name.
But the lessons imparted on Manchin, helping neighbors whether you agree with them politically or not, endure within the senator.
Theresa Witt, Manchin’s cousin, recalls how the senator’s grandparents baked bread every weekend for all the families in the small town and often sent food from their grocery store to the families of laid off coal miners.
And when tragedy struck the area and affected his family, that stayed with him, too.
One of Manchin’s uncles died in the Farmington Mine disaster, a 1968 explosion that killed 78 miners. The disaster shook the community and helped lawmakers in the state pass a number of laws to protect miners. Decades later, as governor, Manchin found himself at the center of numerous fights over coal, including more mining disasters.
“When there was a coal mine disaster while he was governor, I watched it and I saw so many things in Joe then that I always knew,” Witt recalled, growing emotional as she remembers the miners. “I said to Joe, I saw every one of our ancestors when I watched you help all those people. And it was such a tragedy that those men were trapped, and then we thought they were alive, and then one came out alive. It was really heartfelt. It was sincere.”
Standing on the porch of Manchin’s childhood home, Witt spoke about how Manchin’s process for making decisions comes straight back to where he was raised.