Why Manchin Is Drawing Top-Tier GOP Challengers in W.Va.

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Why Manchin Is Drawing Top-Tier GOP Challengers in W.Va.
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Anyone who follows West Virginia politics knows that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is well-liked by constituents. In 2012, he won re-election by 24 percentage points while President Obama lost the state by 27. He bested his opponent by 10 points during the Republican wave of 2010 (winning a special election to succeed Robert Byrd, who died in office), and before that he won the governorship twice. Despite Donald Trump’s 42-point victory in the Mountain State in 2016, handicappers at the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate the 2018 West Virginia Senate race as “Likely Democratic” and “Leans Democratic,” respectively.

Yet Manchin has already drawn two top-tier Republican challengers -- Congressman Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey -- while other Senate Democrats from red and purple states such as Montana, North Dakota, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin haven’t. So it’s worth asking: Why is Manchin alone in this group? And why in 2018 rather than 2010 or 2012, when the political climate was arguably better for Republicans?

There’s two ways to look at this question. The most direct way is through traditional reporting. Many talented reporters (including RealClearPolitics’ James Arkin) have been talking to insiders and candidates, skillfully gauging how the vagaries of each individual race (the state’s political calendar, the personal and political situations of various candidates, the strength of the incumbent, the overall political climate and more) affect which candidates will decide to run and when they’ll announce their bids.  

But we can also attack this question from a data-driven angle. Specifically, the recent transformation of West Virginia’s Republican bench helps explain the rise of strong challengers in 2018 rather than in previous elections. Additionally, the new map drawn by Mitt Romney and Barack Obama helps explain why Republicans with Morrissey’s and Jenkin’s particular strengths are running now.

The Bottleneck and the Bench

Talented Republican politicians in West Virginia appear to be facing a problem that’s fairly common to highly red and blue states: a candidate bottleneck. In this situation, a large number of well-qualified candidates from one party all end up vying for a few coveted statewide positions. To understand exactly how the West Virginia GOP got here and how this sort of bottleneck works, we need to rewind about 17 years.

In 2000, George W. Bush became the first Republican not named Nixon, Reagan or Eisenhower to win the Mountain State since 1928. And in 2004 he became the first Republican to win it twice since William McKinley. As the Republican Party gained support from blue-collar whites and became more culturally conservative, West Virginia moved away from the national Democratic Party. Since 2000, each successive Republican presidential candidate won the state by a larger margin than the last.

But on the state level, the rightward shift has been slower and less decisive. Republicans didn’t take over the West Virginia legislature until 2014. Democrats controlled two of the state’s three congressional seats until 2010 (David McKinley won in the 1st district that year and Jenkins won in the 3rd in 2014). And Democrats frequently won state offices like attorney general and secretary of state.

This left West Virginia Republicans with a shallow bench for gubernatorial and Senate elections for much of the 2000s and early 2010s. Democrats held many state and local positions, leaving the GOP with comparatively few candidates who had experience running for office, a strong network of donors and activists, a record of political accomplishments and some name recognition.

But Republicans began to win these lower-level races early in this decade, and today they’re beginning to have the opposite situation – a plethora that’s creating a bottleneck.

The New Map and Why Jenkins and Morrissey Are Running Now

Obviously, an increasingly strong state-level GOP isn’t the only factor shaping this race. Morrissey and Jenkins (near right of Manchin in photo) may have also joined because their specific profiles might allow them to run on a new map. To see how this could work, we’ll need to take another trip back in time.  

In the past, West Virginia elections took a predictable shape.

This map shows the partisan lean of each county relative to the statewide vote in the 1996 presidential election. In other words, it shows how much each county leaned toward each party after adjusting for Bill Clinton’s 15-point win and excluding third-party votes.

The shape of this map explains the dynamic. Democrats used to rack up votes in coal-dependent communities in the southwestern part of the state and get some votes from other rural areas while performing somewhat worse in the less mining-dependent eastern panhandle and northeastern region. This pattern makes sense given past political battle lines and Democratic strength with blue-collar voters, and it held up even as the state moved to the right. The partisan-lean maps for Bush’s 2000 and 2004 wins, Barack Obama’s 2008 loss (to a lesser extent) and many statewide races followed this general pattern.

But things changed during the Obama era.

This map shows the county-level partisan lean for the 2012 election. The most notable changes here are in the southwestern area, where coal country jumped from being a Democratically leaning area to a Republican stronghold. These shifts don’t happen all at once – we can see the beginnings of it in 2004 and 2008. But there was an unmistakable change in the map between 2008 and 2012. And in 2016, these new divides were further reinforced.

This shows Hillary Clinton’s share of the vote adjusted for the popular vote last November. Clinton performed best in the state’s population centers (Kanawha, Cabell and Monongalia counties are home to Charleston, Huntington and Morgantown, respectively) and the exurbs of Washington, D.C., on the tip of the eastern panhandle. Trump outperformed his strong statewide showing nearly everywhere else.

There’s a number of different ways to explain these patterns, but I think the most effective one is through coal and cultural conservatism. As Democrats became more identified with environmental interests and cosmopolitan culture, they lost a number of working-class whites -- many of whom believe their personal welfare is directly tied to coal. While President Obama’s race may have played a role with some voters, it doesn’t explain everything. The state was shifting right before he appeared on the national stage, and major changes to the map occurred after his first election.

The difference between the 2012 and 2016 maps might be interesting to Morrissey and Jenkins. No Republican candidate in my dataset of recent gubernatorial and senatorial elections exhibited a pattern of support like this. Even Shelley Moore Capito, who won a Senate seat in 2014, had a partisan lean map that was more in line with the old patterns (though her strength in her old congressional district -- which stretches across the center of the state -- may have an influence here).

If Jenkins, who represents coal country as the congressman from the 3rd district (the lower third of the state) or Morrissey (who is actively attempting to align himself with President Trump) are able to force the 2018 map into the mold of the 2016 presidential election, he will have a significant boost. Obviously there’s no guarantee that’ll happen -- Manchin could win with his usual map. But this shift suggests that the right candidate in the right race might be able to import this new national map into state politics.

Olympia Snowe, Robert Byrd and Why None of This Might Matter in 2018

Again, none of this proves that Manchin will win or lose. Manchin is a popular politician and he may prove to be like Snowe, Byrd or Richard Lugar -- popular enough in his own state to withstand any general election challengers. Or he might be unable to resist the rightward shift of his state and fall victim to partisanship next fall. It’s simply too early to tell.

But this data helps explain why Manchin is drawing top-tier challengers in this particular cycle, and why those challengers might apply certain electoral strategies. More broadly, it’s important to try to pinpoint shifts like this early, as changes in the map or the composition of a state party have ripple effects in future elections and legislation.

David Byler is an elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at dbyler@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidbylerRCP.

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