Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Jul. 9, 2013. 
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty

West Virginia’s Manchin positioned to gain new political influence

While much of the political world focuses on the 2020 presidential race, the fate of the U.S. Senate is nearly as important. Republicans currently have a 53-seat majority, and while it’s generally assumed Democrats will be able to chip away at the GOP’s advantage, the question is just how much ground Dems can realistically expect to gain.

A net gain of three seats – no easy task, to be sure – would create an evenly split chamber, while a net gain of four would give Democrats a majority. It’s a tall order given the 2020 map: even if Dems manage to flip seats in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine, they’d have to worry about keeping a seat in Alabama, and finding other possible pick-up opportunities, possibly in states such as Georgia.

Complicating matters, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) had left little doubt that he wasn’t exactly enjoying his work on Capitol Hill and expressed interest in running for governor in West Virginia in 2020, returning him to a job he held and enjoyed. If Manchin did give up his seat, the odds of Democrats keeping it would be poor, and the chances of the party reclaiming a Senate majority would likely evaporate.

This made it all the more notable when the West Virginian announced yesterday that he’d remain in the Senate, explaining that his current job would give him the greatest opportunity to have the “most impact” and be the “most effective.”

As it happens, those weren’t throwaway phrases. As Slate’s Jim Newell noted, Manchin, arguably Congress’ most conservative Democrat is suddenly positioned to become the Senate’s “most powerful member.”

[I]f Democrats win the White House in 2020 while scratching out 50 Senate seats, the senior senator from West Virginia will hold a determinative vote, paired with a powerful committee chairmanship – putting him in a position to ensure all legislative roads run through the party’s rightward margin.

In light of this, it’s a little silly that the presidential primary campaign spends so much time weighing the merits of Kamala Harris’ health care plan versus Bernie Sanders’, or Sanders’ approach to climate change versus Joe Biden’s. A much more efficient approach to gaming out hypothetical Democratic legislation in 2021 would be to ask Manchin what he’s willing to accept on any given issue.

I might quibble a bit with some of the procedural considerations – the legislative filibuster is likely to remain in place, for example, so senators will need to focus on 60-vote majorities, not 51-vote majorities – but Newell’s larger point is well taken. Even if Dems eke out a majority, it won’t be a unified caucus on issues across the board. The party would need some kind of consensus in pursuit of every priority, and that would mean making Manchin happy ahead of every key vote.

That’s a dynamic that would give the West Virginian considerable leverage. It’s also a dynamic that any politician would be foolish to walk away from.

Postscript: All of this, incidentally, reinforces the importance of Senate control. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank had a good column along these lines last week, marveling at Democrats who may want to shift their political focus a bit:

Stacey Abrams: Stand up and be counted. “I do not want to serve in the Senate,” says the hugely popular former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Steve Bullock: Stand up and be counted. “My talents are best suited” to an executive role, says Montana’s well-liked Democratic governor. Beto O’Rourke: Stand up and be counted. “That would not be good enough” to serve in the Senate, says the gifted former Democratic congressman from Texas.

Sorry, but what’s not “good enough” are those answers. The three could make all the difference in Democrats’ uphill quest to take the Senate next year. Instead, they choose to run vanity campaigns for president (or in Abrams’s case, await a vice presidential nod) or put themselves in line for a Cabinet post. Ordinarily, I’d respect their wishes to do what fulfills them or works best for their families or positions them for future success.

But these are not ordinary times. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment not just for Democrats but for American democracy.

Colorado’s John Hickenlooper has already made the transition from presidential candidate to Senate candidate. Will anyone else follow his lead?