Would a Manchin run make sense?

Party labels mean more to politicians, and often to voters, than they have in some time. Often, whether one is a Democrat or a Republican makes as much or more difference than positions on issues or personality.

West Virginia is evidence of that, in a weird sort of way outsiders may have trouble understanding. In part, that’s because Democrats here are much less liberal than those who control the party at the national level.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who serves our state as a Democrat, is considering a run for governor against incumbent Jim Justice, a Republican. That could result in something that would have some out-of-state political scientists scratching their heads — a Democrat governor getting along with a Republican-controlled Legislature better than the GOP governor. It may make sense. Here’s why:

Last week, Manchin was interviewed on the MetroNews “Talkline” show. He said a key consideration in whether he decides to run for governor is how well he could get along with West Virginia legislators. Both the state Senate and House of Delegates are dominated by Republicans.

“Is it as tribal (in Charleston) as it is in Washington? I’ve got to evaluate that,” Manchin explained.

Yes and no. Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature can be as partisan as anyone on Capitol Hill. But there’s a difference. It is that Mountain State Democrats would be thought of as moderate Republicans in many states. There’s less ideological difference between adherents to the two parties — though there are plenty of differences of opinion.

Both because Manchin is considered a moderate Democrat in the Senate and in view of his conciliatory policies when he was governor from 2005-10, Republicans would find fewer reasons to argue with him. Democrat lawmakers would get along with him because, of course, he’s one of them.

Manchin proved his appeal last fall when he was reelected to the Senate — in a state that gave Republican President Donald Trump his largest margin of victory in the nation. Given the fact Democrats still hold a substantial voter registration edge over the GOP, that seems strange to some who don’t understand our state.

But the reason we backed a Republican gives Manchin another edge. Before Trump ever came on the scene, Manchin was refusing to enlist for his party’s war on coal. The very West Virginia voters who love Trump because he supports the coal industry can feel free to vote for Manchin.

Would he butt heads with Republican legislators? On some issues, yes. But on many, he and they could compromise, if not agree entirely.

Justice, on the other hand, is beloved by neither Democrats nor Republicans at the state Capitol.

Recall that he was elected governor as a Democrat, beating Republican Bill Cole, who at the time was president of the state Senate. That annoyed GOP lawmakers.

Then, not long after taking office, Justice switched parties, becoming a Republican. That set Democrat tempers to a boil.

And the governor hasn’t been very good at mending fences with his new party’s lawmakers. Earlier this year, they tried in vain to enact an education bill that would have permitted charter schools in West Virginia. Justice vowed he would veto it.

His personal relationships haven’t been the best, at times. Recall that when Ryan Ferns was serving as state Senate majority leader, he and Justice sparred verbally. At one point, comparing himself to a grizzly bear, the governor likened Ferns to “a poodle walking behind him, just barking and nipping …”

It’s difficult to imagine Manchin going out of his way to make an enemy with such rhetoric.

Will he run? My guess is he’ll wait to see how Justice’s secondary road repair program plays with voters. Unless it’s a big success, Manchin may decide the grass is greener in Charleston.

If he does, GOP leaders may have their fingers crossed behind their backs when they oppose him.

Mike Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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