Manchin told me that Trump called him up in May to talk about the health-care fight in Congress. The senator said that he let Trump know he was willing to negotiate, but soon realized they wouldn’t find common ground as long as the president wasn’t giving up on repeal.
“He called, and I said, ‘happy to help, but I hope you’re the president who wants to fix things, and repair them, not just repeal them or blow them up.” Manchin said he told Trump that pushing for repeal, and taking a hardline against compromise, isn’t “how you got elected,” telling the president “Democrats probably elected you as much if not more than Republicans because you didn’t come through the traditional Republican mainstream.”
When it became clear that Trump was sticking to the goal of repeal, Manchin said, “there wasn’t a whole lot we had to talk about, because I wasn’t going to go there.”
But Manchin said he told Trump: “You want to put a working group together? Call me, I’m there.”
The West Virginia Democratic Party has suffered a severe decline, even more acute than that of the national party. Ties between voters in the state and Democrats in Washington rapidly deteriorated during the Obama’s administration when the White House pursued an environmental agenda opposed by the coal industry, exacerbating an existing rift that Republicans exploited.
In 2014, the state legislature flipped to Republican control after more than two decades of Democratic dominance. Earlier this month, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced he was switching parties from Democrat to Republican at a rally alongside Trump.
As voters in the state drifted away from Democrats, Manchin has distanced himself from the national party. The senator’s success in West Virginia, a rural state with an overwhelmingly white population, may hold lessons for the party as it tries to win back the white, working-class voters Democrats lost to Trump. That is, if Manchin can keep winning.
In the aftermath of the election, Manchin has acted as a sounding board for, and bridge between, his party’s leadership and conservative, rural, white voters. A few days after Trump’s inauguration, Democrats turned to Manchin to help understand where they had gone wrong. In late January, the senator facilitated a conversation with Trump voters at a retreat for Senate Democrats in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
“He brought in some of his supporters who supported Trump and we had a chance to talk about why they did that,” Democratic senator Ben Cardin of Maryland said in an interview at the Capitol, recalling the retreat. “He’s pointed out, and accurately so, that in past elections, many candidates ignored parts of their constituency, including rural areas. That’s unacceptable, and we all agree that’s unacceptable.”
The West Virginia retreat was mocked by critics as the latest evidence that the party is out of touch. “Senate Democrats have resorted to asking West Virginia’s senator to teach them how to talk to ‘real people,’” read a headline from The Week. Months later, Democrats are still trying to understand why an estimated millions of Americans who voted Democrat in the past defected to the Republican Party in 2016.