West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, the sitting conservative Democrat many think stumbled into the wrong party, will be facing a primary challenger in 2018. Paula Jean Swearengin, an environmental activist, a coal miner’s daughter, and a West Virginia native, launched her campaign last week and will be running as a populist, anti-establishment candidate with zero big money ties.
To put it mildly, the deep red state, which voted for Republican faux-populist Donald Trump by a 32% margin, will see an electoral blood battle with challengers coming from the left and the right. Current Republican Representative Evan Jenkins also announced his campaign Monday. The right wing challenger is setting his sights on Manchin’s gun control and (inconsistent) Planned Parenthood policies, anything away from their donors. Jenkins and Manchin both have PACs with money coming in from the pharmaceutical/insurance industry (West Virginia being known for its current opioid epidemic), the real estate industry, and the commercial banking and business sectors. According to Open Secrets, a website which tracks money in politics, both Manchin and Jenkins kneel at the altar of the oil, gas, and mining companies who are among their top donors.
This pro-business backing is a strong influence in Washington as these PACs have raised, as early as now, hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions. Manchin, along with other blue dog Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, has abandoned his party’s agenda to “#Resist!!” at all costs in favor of the president’s. In early April, they voted in favor of staunch right-wing Judge Neil Gorsuch, the man who says he cried when Justice Scalia died whilst he was skiing, and voted in favor of management when a truck driver was unjustly fired for leaving his post during a blizzard.
Manchin also voted for far-right Republican Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, the only one in his party to do so. The two share the philosophy on having a new war on drugs, the first war only having a 77% disapproval among the American populace according to Rasmussen Reports. Manchin also has yet to endorse medicare-for-all, a healthcare policy over 65% of Americans want including republicans, yet has opted to tepidly defend and critique Obamacare, the individual mandate system dating back all the way to Nixon’s administration.
Swearengin launched her campaign with the endorsement of Brand New Congress, a new activist group with Bernie Sanders presidential staffers and volunteers who want to replace all corrupt Democrat and Republican members. She also has the endorsement of Justice Democrats, another organization started by Secular Talk’s commentator Kyle Kulinski and Bernie Sanders staffers, who have committed to running candidates that take no corporate money and no PAC money, in the effort to “Take back the democratic party” and “give it to the people.” Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress alone have raised over a million dollars in small dollar campaign contributions for all their respective 2018 candidates.
Her platform, which also went live this week, focuses on issues popular with the American people, even among those who supported Donald Trump. Swearengin endorses expansions in higher wage manufacturing and clean energy jobs, in contrast to the lower wage service and fracking jobs created under President Obama in the wake of the great recession. In a video taken with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Swearengin explains her opposition to coal pollution in waterways and mountain mining having seen her father suffer black lung, a frequent occurrence in coal country such as West Virginia. She supports increases in funding for infrastructure and education spending (including universal college) and an endorsement of a universal, Medicare-For-All single payer healthcare. On six occasions, including last week with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, President Trump has given tremendous praise of the system which does exactly what he promised to do: “I’m going to take care of everybody.” His latest healthcare bill, constructed by the Republican party freedom caucus and speaker Paul Ryan, was estimated to cut 24 million more people off health insurance and Medicaid.
Manchin apologists claim they must run Manchin, the centre-right pro-life Democrat, in order to hold their seat against the big bad Republicans. This approach has been criticized by the populist left, who source Bernie Sanders, a left-wing populist who holds a 61% approval rating nationally, the most popular politician in Congress, as the future of the party. Republicans hold a 35% approval to the Democrats’ 20%. Polls today indicate that if the 2016 election were held today, despite having historic unfavorables in just 100 days, voters would vote even more towards a right-wing populist message in Trump than that of Hillary Clinton.
Where West Virginia was once a Democratic stronghold, and despite the current Democratic governor Jim Justice and Senator Manchin, the state that consistently voted primarily Democrat before 2000, when they were swayed by the Bush-era campaign of “compassionate conservatism.” Where natives tend to describe themselves as “conservative” and “right-wing,” the 2016 Primary saw Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by around 40K votes. With Republicans holding the majority in all levels of government and the polling not in their favor, a centrist status-quo candidate might see a grassroots backlash if their message is simply: “I’m not Trump.”
In a conservative state such as West Virginia, Bernie Sanders held a town hall with MSNBC where voters who overwhelmingly supported Trump cheered on an agenda of raising taxes on high-income individuals and guaranteeing free college and free healthcare. An election such as the one between Manchin and Swearengin, even against big money support and name recognition, will test just how well a lefty populist can do when apologetics for right-wing policies are tossed aside.