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The retirement of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin marks the end of an era, as Manchin is the last Democrat to hold statewide office in West Virginia.
Sam Workman, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Public Affairs at West Virginia University, spoke to reporter Curtis Tate about what Manchin’s departure means for Democrats and what it would take to fill the void he’ll leave.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tate: Can a Democrat still win a statewide office in West Virginia? What would it take?
Workman: I think the West Virginia that used to exist, where a Democrat talked a lot about coal, and especially coal families and what we were going to do for coal families, I don’t think that’s the West Virginia that exists. The West Virginia that exists is about recreational economy issues. It’s about health care. It’s about the manufacturing and the sort of energy projects we’re going to do in the western part of the state. And I think for a Democrat to win, they have to slot in those issues and be a little more forward looking than your standard, progressive sort of challenger to Manchin of recent times.
Manchin’s an older sort of politician who could kind of go at people with the elements of policy and whatnot. I don’t think that’s as viable a strategy anymore. I think the Democrats in the state really need to think about how their platform relates to the investments and the jobs that we have right now, not the ones we used to have.
Tate: Who steps in to fill the void Manchin leaves?
Workman: I’m going to give you a two part answer to that question. The first part is that looking to compare anyone to Joe Manchin, that gives them a tough road ahead, because Joe Manchin, in my lifetime, is the best politician. Now understand what I’m saying. Not saying that everyone agrees with him, rah rah. But as just a sheer politician, he’s the best politician the state has witnessed in my lifetime. I don’t think (Robert) Byrd or (Jay) Rockefeller could have held that seat as long as he did. He understands politics on the ground in difficult situations, probably better and has a better feel for it than anyone that I have come across on either side of the aisle, frankly. So that’s part one.
Part two is I think, no one steps up to the Democrats and fills those shoes in this election cycle. When we talk about the reemergence of the Democratic Party in West Virginia, I think you’re talking about something that is two, three cycles away, in terms of elections. Because we do have good sort of politicians at lower levels. If you take the state party chair, Mike Pushkin, a very prominent figure, in general does a good job of sort of navigating the waters of politics here on the ground. This guy (Zach) Shrewsbury, from my home county of Fayette County, he’s got a little more wind in his sails now with Manchin out of there. I still think folks like that run into the problem of sort of thinking about the West Virginia they grew up in and not the one that exists today. Steve Williams, the mayor from Huntington, he’s kind of a little late to statewide politics. But he’s fairly well known. He’s been a great mayor of Huntington. So there are people. I guess what I’m saying is there are people out there.
Tate: Gov. Jim Justice is likely the successor to Manchin. But he’s got to get through a Republican primary with Rep. Alex Mooney. Won’t that expose many of his vulnerabilities?
Workman: Sort of the godsend to the governor, if he gets through the primary, Manchin was no longer waiting on the other side, which he most certainly would have. And, as I think I may have said to you at some point before, each of those folks would have been the best politician the other has ever faced, for certain. So it’s very hard for me to see the governor not getting through the primary. And that’s not a statement about representative Mooney, he’s a very able, obviously very able and agile politician, because he took down Rep. (David) McKinley, largely in his own district. So Mooney has the acumen to make it tough. But the governor is so entrenched in the minds of the state.
He’s also entrenched in national Republican minds. The pandemic and the fallout from it gave the governor a lot of airtime and space and national politics. He was on all the big shows, at one point or another, talking about our vaccine programs, which were initially very successful, all this sort of stuff. But it’s very hard, barring health issues, barring financial or legal troubles, or something we don’t know yet. It’s very hard to see the governor – it would be a monumental collapse, I think, for the governor to lose this. I think Gov. Justice is probably our next senator and I just do not see in the span of one year, a Democrat making up all that space from such a low starting point for Democratic politics in the state. It’s very difficult to see that.
Tate: Joe Manchin is already a national figure, if not a household name. So what purpose would running for president as a third-party candidate serve for him?
Workman: I think it’s also the case that becoming a national figure may put him in a spot to take a cabinet position of some sort. I know if I were a betting person, I would say he would love probably to be energy secretary and have some measure of authority over how all of the money for energy transitions that he has secured, have some ability to direct those funds on the ground. So I think it comes from both believing that that middle was there, genuinely because it’s who he is. And it’s how he’s won. It’s how he’s built his political career.
But I also think there might be some angling here to be part of a presidential administration as a cabinet member or whatnot. So we all know, it’s almost structurally impossible for a third party candidate to win, right? Our elections are structured in a way that really prevents it. It’s why we’ve not really seen it.