By most measures, West Virginia is an undeniably red state. It has a Republican governor and a Republican-led legislature. It has three representatives in the U.S. House, and they're all Republicans. Donald Trump won the state by nearly 42 points last year -- that's not a typo -- making it one of his strongest states in the 2016 election. (West Virginia has 55 counties and Trump won literally all of them by double digits.)
It's against this backdrop that GOP officials are looking at incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin (D) and assuming he's ripe for the picking in 2018. After all, how in the world can a Democrat expect to compete in a state where nearly every statewide officeholder is a Republican?
The answer, it turns out, is pretty well. The MetroNews Network in Charleston recently reported on the latest statewide polling in West Virginia, which found that Manchin is easily the most popular politician in the state -- and is even more popular there than Trump. In hypothetical 2018 match-ups, Manchin had double-digit leads over his most likely GOP rivals.
With this kind of support from his constituents, Manchin can even open the door to a debate on single-payer health care. Bloomberg Politics reported yesterday:
"It should be explored," said West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who faces re-election next year in a state President Donald Trump carried by 42 points. "I want to know what happens in all the countries that have it -- how well it works or the challenges they have."
To be sure, the West Virginian isn't signing on as a co-sponsor of Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) "Medicare for All" bill, and in a follow-up statement, Manchin clarified that he's "skeptical that single-payer is the right solution."
But the debate is clearly changing rapidly, to the point that Congress' most conservative Democrat, instead of dismissing single-payer out of hand, is ready to examine the idea on its merits. Up until very recently, this was largely unthinkable.
Indeed, yesterday's comments from Manchin weren't a verbal slip-up. A few months ago, the West Virginia Democrat made a similar comment to the Washington Post, saying he told Bernie Sanders he's willing to take a look at how a single-payer system would work in practice.
I guess he meant it.
Postscript: As conservative as West Virginia is, it's also a unique place where arguments about "big government" and health care are less likely to work. Daniel Gross noted yesterday that roughly half of the state's population are Medicare or Medicaid beneficiaries, and when one adds in public-sector employees, military personnel, and veterans, the notion of a single-payer system is already familiar to most of West Virginia's residents.