- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2018

Sen. Joe Manchin III on Thursday trotted out three “longtime friends” — Alabama football coach Nick Saban, West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins and NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West — to talk up the senator’s bipartisan bona fides in a campaign commercial aimed at undecided West Virginia voters.

The Democratic incumbent this month also has written at least five op-eds with GOP colleagues on a variety of issues including health care to national security, and Mr. Manchin was the sole member of his party to vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

In a state that President Trump won in 2016 by more than 40 percentage points, Mr. Manchin’s road to re-election in deep-red West Virginia hinges on whether he can convince enough Republicans to reject the president’s advice and back him in the Nov. 6 contest. Observers say the key calculus for undecided, right-leaning voters is simple: Do they like their Democratic senator enough to buck the president?

Mr. Manchin, a household name in the state who previously served as governor, is facing off against West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. Polls have shown an increasingly tight race, and the GOP long has seen the state and its conservative constituency as a golden opportunity to snatch a Senate seat.

But political insiders say Mr. Manchin has played his political cards shrewdly both this year and throughout his Senate career, consistently stiff-arming his party on coal regulations, gun control, and most recently, the highly contentious Kavanaugh vote.

“His conservative underpinnings have been there all along, and now he’s got to go back to those roots” to win re-election, said Bill Bissett, president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber this week endorsed Mr. Manchin.

The incumbent senator has made no secret of the fact that his strategy centers on convincing Republican and independent voters to support him, and he’s cast himself as one of the few lawmakers willing and able to work on a bipartisan basis in an increasingly divided Washington.

“West Virginians elected me to put their interests above politics, and they know I have always done that,” Mr. Manchin said in a statement this week to The Associated Press. “Part of that is working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find areas we agree.”

That strategy, however, is running head-on into the Trump political machine, which has come out full force against Mr. Manchin. The president has visited the state on multiple occasions and has been a vocal supporter of Mr. Morrisey, who built his own political reputation battling the Obama administration and winning key court victories on issues around coal and energy policy.

On Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence will stump for Mr. Morrisey. Next week, Donald Trump Jr. will visit the state, and it’s widely expected the president himself could make another stop in West Virginia before Election Day.

While Mr. Morrisey has had to spend time and energy fending off attacks — such as the charge that he remains in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry after years representing the industry — his campaign also aims to chip away at Mr. Manchin’s bipartisan pitch.

Morrisey campaign spokesman Nathan Brand told the AP this week that Mr. Manchin is “a dishonest Washington liberal who only acts bipartisan around Election Day.”

And the attorney general himself launched a similar line of attack, telling voters Mr. Manchin will become a reliable vote for Democratic policies once he’s secured another term.

“Joe Manchin only votes for Joe Manchin. He is lying to the voters of West Virginia on coal, life and guns. Joe’s gotta go!” Mr. Morrisey tweeted.

While polls have fluctuated, they’ve consistently shown Mr. Manchin with a lead. The Real Clear Politics average of all surveys gives Mr. Manchin a 9-point edge, while a Citizens United poll released this week gave the incumbent just a 4-point edge.

Republicans believe the race is getting closer.

“It’s reachable. People here see it as a dead heat, or Morrisey closing,” said Rob Cornelius, chairman of the Wood County GOP.

He added that he believes the vote in favor of Justice Kavanaugh will do little to help Mr. Manchin.

“That was already baked into the cake. Everybody expected him to do the thing that was politically smart for him,” Mr. Cornelius said. “Everybody knows Manchin is shifty and he’s not getting any bonus credit for it.”

The key question, observers say, is whether conservative-leaning voters in the state are willing to rebuff Mr. Trump and the national party and vote for Mr. Manchin instead. It’s also unclear whether the president may relax his attacks on Mr. Manchin after the senator backed his Supreme Court nominee.

The president “has a strong affection for this state and it has value, but I’m not sure it has more value than the popularity of Manchin,” Mr. Bissett said. “We’re still in a popularity contest.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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