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The most powerful man in Washington, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, is under fire from the left of his party. Already frustrated with Manchin's opposition to abolishing the legislative filibuster, liberals grew even more incensed about the West Virginia Senator's decision to pen an op-ed in his hometown paper that put in writing what everyone in DC already knew: he won't support the Democrats election reform bill known as the "For the People Act."
The backlash from the left was swift. On Monday, a liberal member of Congress called the West Virginia Democrat "the new Mitch McConnell," a liberal PAC is threatening to "run ads meant to dampen Manchin's" approval ratings at home and Rev. William Barber, a progressive activist and leader of the Poor People's Campaign, is organizing a "Moral March on Manchin" in West Virginia on June 14.
These attacks will not hurt Manchin — the only Democratic statewide elected official in West Virginia — back at home. If anything, they could help him. In a state that Trump carried by almost 40 points, getting attacked by liberal organizations is good politics. As the New York Times's Nate Cohn notes, "[n]one of the demographic groups that animate today's Democratic coalition are well-represented in the state. Black, Hispanic, college-educated, young, urban and professional voters all represent a much smaller share of the electorate in West Virginia than just about anywhere else. White voters without a four-year degree, Donald Trump's demographic base, made up 69 percent of voters there in 2020, according to census data, the highest in the country."
Moreover, it's also an open question as to whether the 73-year-old senator will run for re-election in 2024. Yes, he's been able to overcome the state's steady shift to the right over the last 15 years, but the political undertow in a presidential year may be just too strong for even Manchin to survive. For those who are looking for a deep dive into what makes Manchin tick, I highly recommend listening to New York Times political reporter Jonathan Martin’s expert analysis on a recent episode of the New York Time’s podcast The Daily.
But, while liberals train their fire at Manchin, swing state Democrats up in 2022 are able to fly under the radar on the issue. Manchin is serving as a political 'heat shield,' protecting Senate Democrats like Maggie Hassan (New Hampshire), Mark Kelly (Arizona) and Catherine Cortez Mastro (Nevada) from having to be the 'deciding vote' on eliminating the legislative tactic.
In Arizona, for example, the Democratic state party recently passed a resolution calling for the abolition of the filibuster. The state's senior senator, Krysten Sinema (who isn't up until 2024), remains opposed to abolishing the tactic. Still, Kelly, who has to run in 2022, "has not taken a public position on whether he supports eliminating the filibuster." Kelly can remain uncommitted — and thus keep liberals from organizing a primary challenge or Republicans from attacking him as a liberal shill — thanks to Sinema and Manchin's willingness to be the face of opposition.
Cortez Mastro and Hassan have both advocated 'reform' of the filibuster, but not outright abolition. Both senators say they support the so-called "talking filibuster" requiring someone to hold the floor continuously to hold up legislation. This position — combined with Manchin's willingness to serve as the face of the filibuster opposition — helps keep liberal organizations from recruiting serious primary challenges or holding opposition rallies in their states.
But, where we could see the issue of abolishing the filibuster become pivotal is in open seat races for the Senate. For example, in the wake of the failed vote in the Senate to set up a January 6th commission, Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat from the western part of the state, took to Twitter to announce that "yesterday made things really clear. I believe the filibuster has to go." Lamb, a moderate, is widely seen as a potential Senate candidate. If he runs, he'll face a number of more progressive candidates in the primary. In other words, it's easy to see how "ditching the filibuster" will be something of a litmus test in Democratic primaries next year.
But, there's also the question of whether this very inside baseball topic will be a key issue in 2022. After all, voters are rarely motivated by procedural arguments one way or the other. Of course, progressives will argue that it will be hard for a Democrat to raise money — or energy —from the base if they don't stand up to GOP obstruction. But, for Democratic candidates running in swing states, this issue will be used by their GOP opponents as proof of their fidelity to liberal leaders.
For now, however, Manchin (and Sinema's) decision to be the Democratic "outliers" on the filibuster helps to keep their vulnerable colleagues from having to take the heat.
Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via AP Images