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West Virginia’s hopes are boosted by Manchin, a crucial Senate swing vote.

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West Virginia's hopes are boosted by Manchin, a crucial Senate swing vote.

 

West Virginia has long been known as “Almost Heaven,” a reference to a song and the state’s sweeping mountaintop views. As Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin negotiates his way through Congress, some jokes about the state mentioned in “Take Me Home, Country Roads” might get a little more serious.

Nick Casey, a longtime Democratic Party official, said, “Maybe we’ll get to heaven status.”

It will be a tall challenge to revive West Virginia’s economically devastated coal towns and reverse the state’s long-term population decline. In a divided Senate, however, Manchin, who grew up in the mountain town of Farmington, has emerged as a crucial swing vote. He now has his best chance in years to get federal funds back to the United States.

Manchin waded back into the fray this week over the COVID relief bill in Congress, single-handedly blocking work on the bill on Friday as Democrats tried to appease his fears about the scale and length of an extended unemployment benefit.

In terms of his own agenda, Manchin has made public comments about “common sense” infrastructure improvements that are desperately needed in his home state, such as improving rural broadband and repairing roads. West Virginia, he said, could provide the manufacturing muscle needed to “innovate our way to a healthier world.” He’s also said that if given the chance, coal miners will make the best solar panels.

Some speculate that his renewed clout would allow him to do something that former President Donald Trump promised but couldn’t deliver: re-ignite a state economy that has long been overly reliant on a collapsing coal industry.

Senators from Manchin’s state have good reason to study the needs of small towns outside the Blue Ridge Mountains. Manchin, 73, was always a well-known dealmaker on Capitol Hill, but in a 50-50 Senate, deference to the most conservative Democrat has increased since November. He was recently referred to as “your highness” by a senator from Hawaii. The game of guessing which way he’ll vote has become late-night television fodder.

Manchin’s opposition has recently aided the demise of Neera Tanden, President Joe Biden’s choice to head the federal Office of Management and Budget.

A senator from West Virginia hasn’t wielded this much power since Robert Byrd died in 2010. Over the course of a half-century, Byrd amassed a fortune in federal buildings, landmarks, and highways, many of which bear his name.

Casey, an attorney and former chair of the state Democratic Party, said, “This is hardscrabble land, man — our population is dropping, the death of coal.” “We now have a man who will be able to leave a legacy. And I believe there is a lot of hope and anticipation that Joe will accomplish something important and exceptional.”

Pam Garrison, a former cashier, told Manchin at a meeting advocating for a $15 federal minimum wage that Byrd has colleges and hospitals named after him because “when he came into power, he used that power for the people.”

“If you do what is right for the people, you will be remembered long after you are gone.”

Manchin, on the other hand, sees himself as an advocate for policies that benefit Appalachia and the Rust Belt, rather than a seeker of pork-barrel ventures.

“What we have to do now, and I believe it is appropriate,” he said, “is show the need and that the base has been abandoned.”

He began down that path by joining Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow in co-sponsoring a bill that would provide $8 billion in tax credits to coal communities and the auto industry to promote renewable energy manufacturing.

Manchin will use his place in a 50-50 Senate, according to Robert Rupp, a political history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, to bring his small state to the forefront of everyone’s mind.

“He’s in the spotlight, and he has the ability to claim power,” Rupp said.

Manchin, a former governor, has deep ties to West Virginia politics. That explains why he is the last Democrat to hold a statewide office in a state Trump won by massive margins both times.

Manchin exudes a sense of unpredictability. Even after demonstrators gathered outside his state office in Charleston, he rejected a $15 minimum wage clause in the $1.9 billion pandemic stimulus package, leading others to doubt his potential legacy.

“We’re either going to smell like a rose in West Virginia, or we’re going to smell like crap, and Joseph Manchin will be blamed,” said Jean Evansmore, 80, a West Virginia organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign.

The Senate parliamentarian ruled a few days later that an increase could not be included in the COVID-19 relief bill. That was a victory for Manchin and his respect for Senate traditions, such as the filibuster, which helps maintain a 60-vote threshold for most bills.

Manchin has stated that he would never accept the repeal of the filibuster.

Anti-abortion activists rallied outside the golden-domed state Capitol in Charleston on a recent morning, holding signs that read, “Thank you Senator Manchin.”

Marilyn Musgrave, an anti-abortion activist with the Susan B. Anthony List, said, “We need to inspire him to stand firm.”

After lobbying against Manchin’s offer for a second full term in 2018, which he secured with just under 50% of the vote, Musgrave’s party is now looking to him. Manchin opposes federal funding for abortions but does not advocate for a complete ban. Despite this, he consistently receives a low rating from abortion-rights organizations, putting him in line with West Virginians who have sent mixed signals on abortion.

Manchin has been the target of reports that he’ll switch parties because of his centrist instincts in such a red state.

“Republicans have this fantasy that just because he’s conservative on certain topics, he’ll switch parties,” Rupp said.

He believes that is impossible, particularly given Manchin’s newfound power. And that’s great with Matt Kerner, a 54-year-old West Virginian who wants Manchin to remember that 16 percent of his state’s residents live in poverty, the nation’s sixth-highest rate, according to the U.S. Census.

Kerner said, “We’re hoping Senator Manchin remembers that he serves some of America’s poorest citizens.”

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