Manchin’s strategy for surviving 2012 in a red state: Bash President Obama

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) might have found the formula for saving a vulnerable Senate Democrat facing a tough reelection bid in a red state: Bash President Obama and his policies.

Manchin’s approval rating has climbed steadily since January, and one of his strongest potential Republican challengers, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), is considered a long-shot candidate in 2012.

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Political experts in West Virginia say the key to Manchin’s survival has been to use a stiff jab to keep his distance from Obama, who was trounced in the state in 2008.

“He needed it as a survival strategy,” said John Kilwein, director of undergraduate studies at West Virginia University’s political science department. “He’s gone out of his way to distance himself from the president, and my guess is that it’s probably worked because this is a fairly conservative state.”

Manchin stressed in an interview Tuesday that he has aired his differences with the president in the most respectful way he could.

“People in West Virginia want to make sure this administration is working on behalf of not only them but the country, and West Virginia is concerned that they will be able to mine the coal and make the steel and want to continue to be able to help this great country,” the freshman senator said.

During an interview with a conservative radio talk show shortly before Congress returned to Washington, Manchin told the host he might not support Obama’s reelection in 2012.

“We’re going to wait until that comes to reality, but there are a lot of things I’m concerned about. I want to see our state and I want to see our nation moving in the right direction. We’ve got to see who the nominees are and go from there,” Manchin told Hoppy Kercheval, the show’s host.

Manchin said he has “fundamental disagreements on the government’s role” with the Obama administration and stressed he is speaking out as a West Virginian, and “not as a Democrat.”

Kercheval, who describes himself as a fair-minded conservative, said this tough stance against the Obama administration has helped Manchin with voters.

“He has worked very hard to separate himself from the president. His philosophy is not that of the president. He knows President Obama is toxic [in] West Virginia,” said Kercheval. 

Kercheval said this has helped boost Manchin’s approval rating because “West Virginia is a pretty conservative place” and the Obama administration’s efforts to curb carbon emissions linked to global warming are not good for the state’s coal industry, a major employer.

Data released last week by Public Policy Polling, a liberal-leaning organization, shows that Manchin’s approval rating has climbed steadily since January, when it stood at 52 percent.

PPP found Manchin’s approval rating is now 59 percent, while his disapproval rating is only 26 percent. Those are impressive numbers for a Senate Democratic incumbent in a state Obama lost by 13 points to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election.

“If Manchin had to stand for reelection this year, he’d be close to unbeatable,” PPP concluded in a memo.

The polling organization also found that Manchin drew a surprising amount of support from Republican and conservative voters. He registered a 46 percent approval and 36 percent disapproval among Republicans.

Manchin noted to The Hill that his approval rating is down from the 70 percent he enjoyed as governor. 

“Washington really takes you down,” Manchin quipped. 

Manchin said his statements and positions have helped “reaffirm that [I am] still the same person I was” as governor and “I’m not going to change.”

Manchin said he is a proud Democrat, having been raised with the values of “always reaching out, trying to help others have a better quality of life and help themselves” and taking care of those who cannot help themselves.

But he said sometimes his party’s priorities in Washington are “out of balance with … how we do business in West Virginia.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) set its crosshairs on Manchin immediately after the 2010 election. One of the first attack pieces it unleashed in the 2012 cycle was a press release bashing Manchin for skipping a final vote on repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” to attend a family commitment in West Virginia.

But lately the NRSC has paid less attention to Manchin than other vulnerable Senate incumbents. Instead of attacking him, the GOP campaign committee has used his statements to put the heat on other Democratic senators facing tough reelection bids.

The Republican campaign committee issued press releases in June and July highlighting Manchin’s vow to vote against raising the debt limit without spending reforms and demanded Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) do the same.

Even though no strong Republican candidate has yet emerged to challenge Manchin, the NRSC says it won’t let the senator waltz to reelection.

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“We have a long way to go until November 2012, and despite Sen. Manchin’s best efforts to reinvent himself, he’s going to be at the top of the ticket with President Obama next year,” said Brian Walsh, the committee’s spokesman.

Manchin won a 2010 special election to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) by 10 points. He’s running next year for his first full term in the Senate.

He challenged the administration early on, voting against a motion to proceed to legislation to repeal the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which prohibited gays from serving openly in the military. And he’s challenging the new healthcare law’s individual mandate, which requires individuals to purchase insurance, arguing it needs “repair.” (He was not in the Senate when the upper chamber voted on the legislation.)

Manchin’s biggest differences with Obama have been over environmental policies and the efforts of the president’s Environmental Protection Agency to curb carbon emissions, which he famously demonstrated in his 2010 television ad, in which he shot a copy of cap-and-trade climate legislation with a high-powered hunting rifle.

He also made a media splash earlier this year when he criticized Obama for failing to lead in the budget debate.

“Why are we doing all this when the most powerful person in these negotiations — our president — has failed to lead this debate or offer a serious proposal for spending and cuts that he would be willing to fight for?” asked Manchin on the Senate floor before the chamber was to vote on two budget plans that were certain to fail. “How does that make sense?”

Manchin reiterated his tough tone after Obama presented his jobs bill to a joint session of Congress on Thursday.

“While I applaud the president’s focus on job creation, investing in infrastructure and making our tax system more fair by eliminating corporate giveaways, I have serious questions about the level of spending that President Obama has proposed, as well as the actual effectiveness some of these policies will have when it comes to creating jobs,” he said after the speech.