SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Selina Vickers attended the Democratic National Convention in 2016 as an enthusiastic backer of liberal darling Sen. Bernard Sanders, who ran away with West Virginia’s presidential primary that year and sparked hopes that a liberal revolution was taking root in the heart of Appalachia.
Two years later, Ms. Vickers reluctantly cast her vote for Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia’s incumbent and a name that is synonymous with the Mountain State — but also a Democrat who has deeply alienated his left flank by often clinging to President Trump and bucking his party on major platform planks such as support for coal.
Mr. Manchin’s disconnect from his own party reached its apex last month when he was the only Democrat to back Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. The vote angered and bewildered liberals, though many across the state told The Washington Times this week that they will hold their noses and cast a ballot for him, anyway.
“At this point in our life, Joe Manchin is the best we have. Most people aren’t thrilled,” said Ms. Vickers, a Fayette County resident who ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Delegates last spring.
“What choice do we have? I already voted. I voted for him, very unhappily,” she said. “He is very good at putting people in that position. He’s a brilliant politician. He always puts us in this position where people who don’t like him have to vote for him.”
‘The big picture’
Widely considered the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, Mr. Manchin — who faces off against West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in the Senate contest Tuesday — walks a constant political tightrope, needing to win over conservative-leaning independents and some Republicans while galvanizing enough support among Democrats to win.
He easily fended off a Democratic primary challenge from liberal activist Paula Jean Swearengin last spring, quietly dashing the hopes of some liberals in the state who thought the momentum from Mr. Sanders’ primary win over Hillary Clinton in 2016 could carry over.
Despite his relatively comfortable primary victory, in each corner of the state — and especially liberal enclaves such as Shepherdstown and Morgantown — liberals openly fume about Mr. Manchin and his Democrat-lite approach. They cite his backing of Justice Kavanaugh after allegations of sexual misconduct, his opposition to regulations that would hasten the decline of coal in America, and his unwillingness to join most others in his party and fiercely criticize the president.
But they simultaneously concede that they will vote for Mr. Manchin in pursuit of a larger goal: getting their party back in control of the Senate.
“Progressive Democrats have never liked Joe Manchin. Joe Manchin is not progressive. However, most progressives are realists. … It’s about getting leadership in the Senate to switch from red to blue. That’s the big picture here,” said Marybeth Beller, a political science professor at Marshall University in Huntington.
Republicans this year have tried to paint Mr. Manchin as another “Washington liberal.” During a campaign stop here last month, Donald Trump Jr. even dubbed Mr. Manchin “Schumer’s little pet,” a reference to liberal Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
Those attacks, however, largely ring hollow and are often seen as laughable by liberal activists in West Virginia, most of whom say the incumbent will win next week.
Polls consistently have shown Mr. Manchin with a lead, though Mr. Trump is returning to the state Friday for a last-ditch rally with Mr. Morrisey.
Mr. Trump won West Virginia by more than 40 percentage points in 2016 and remains wildly popular in the state. Republicans hope direct appeals from the president on behalf of Mr. Morrisey will swing the election in their favor.
For that to happen, political analysts and officials across West Virginia say, large numbers of liberal Democrats would have to stay home, vote for Mr. Morrisey or skip the Senate election and vote only for down-ballot races.
Democratic officials say none of that will materialize and that Mr. Manchin’s weak standing with the left wing of his party will matter little when the dust settles.
“A lot of my progressive friends are very upset with Sen. Manchin about his vote on Kavanaugh. But almost all of them are going to vote for him. That’s what they’ve told me,” said John Doyle, a former member of the state House of Delegates who is running this year to return to the chamber.
Speaking to The Washington Times inside a downtown Shepherdstown restaurant, Mr. Doyle said many liberals in the state didn’t show up for Mrs. Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, leading to Mr. Trump’s runaway victory. He said they are unlikely to stay home this year despite similar feelings about Mr. Manchin.
“Not around here. It ain’t happening,” he said.
Others argued that liberals in West Virginia understand the state’s political reality.
“Let’s not punish the good for the perfect. Politics is the art of the possible,” said Robert Mahaffey, a Shepherdstown-area resident and executive director of the Rural Trust, a nonprofit organization that works with rural schools.
“Do I agree with the senator? I was disappointed in his vote for Justice Kavanaugh,” he said before quickly pivoting to his key point.
“I’ll vote for Sen. Manchin enthusiastically,” he said.
‘Joe supports Trump when he’s right’
Mr. Manchin has shown little interest in bolstering his liberal bona fides. Instead, he has spent the closing weeks of the election touting his willingness and ability to work with Republicans. He has written at least five newspaper op-eds with Republican senators on issues such as veterans’ care and efforts to overhaul Obamacare, and his campaign advertisements appeal directly to voters in the Trump-friendly state.
“Joe has been universally recognized as someone who defies party labels,” reads one of his campaign mailers. “Joe supports Trump when he’s right and votes against him when he’s wrong.”
Mr. Morrisey has tried to chip away at his opponent’s reputation by lumping him in with liberal Democrats.
“He’s a dishonest Washington liberal,” the attorney general said during an interview with a Charleston television station this week.
Mr. Morrisey has run an aggressive campaign that has hit his opponent on the opioid crisis and economic policy, but many liberal voters say they would never cross the aisle and vote for the Republican.
“Obviously not the best choice. There could be somebody better. … But I’ve got to take Manchin over the other dude. It’s an obvious choice,” said Giovanni Masini-Larsen, a 28-year-old Shepherdstown resident who described himself as a strong supporter of Mr. Sanders.
Political observers also are quick to point out that Mr. Manchin occasionally takes stands that curry favor with the liberal wing of the party. He joined Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, to push a bill tightening background check guidelines for gun purchases — a politically risky move in West Virginia.
Those occasional stances, some liberals say, make it easier for left-wing Democrats to support him.
“They’re willing to acknowledge that there are some things about him that are progressive,” said Mr. Doyle, the House of Delegates candidate. “His work on gun control legislation — that took an awful lot of guts.”
The most recent Real Clear Politics average of polls gives Mr. Manchin a 12-point lead over Mr. Morrisey. The two men will meet in Morgantown on Thursday night for the race’s only formal debate.
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