In 2008, then-Gov. Joe Manchin waited through a bruising Democratic primary, endorsing no one for president until just before the Democratic National Convention, when then-Sen. Barack Obama’s nomination had become a foregone conclusion.
Four years later, Manchin initially said he was unsure if he would vote for Obama’s re-election or for the Republican presidential nominee, former-Gov. Mitt Romney, and he and other West Virginia Democrats skipped the 2012 Democratic convention.
This time around, there are no such delays, no indecision.
“I do,” Manchin said on Friday when asked if he thought Hillary Clinton should be his party’s presidential nominee. “I know Hillary and I find her to be very warm, I find her to be very compassionate and very tough and she’s got experience, she really does, and with that being said I think that she’s at the right place in her life to be able to lead.”
Manchin announced Sunday that he will stay in the Senate and not run for governor in 2016.
Manchin said that he thought Clinton, if she ends up the party’s nominee, could reverse a 20-year trend — Democratic presidential candidates losing in West Virginia. No Democrat has won the Mountain State’s five electoral votes since Clinton’s husband, then-President Bill Clinton, defeated then-Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas in 1996. In 2000, George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore in West Virginia surprised many political observers; West Virginia’s electoral votes would have been enough to give Gore the presidency over Bush.
“People say an awful lot, but the bottom line is Hillary’s been here, she’s done extremely well in the primary here before, and I think that you’ll see her come to West Virginia, connect with the people,” Manchin said.
In 2008, Clinton won 67 percent of the vote in West Virginia’s Democratic primary, trouncing Obama. It was her most resounding primary victory in any state other than Arkansas, where she served as first lady.
Manchin hosted a rally with Clinton in Fairmont on the eve of the 2008 primary.
But seven years later, much has changed. Republicans now control both houses of the state Legislature and four of the five seats in West Virginia’s congressional delegation. In 2008, Manchin said he thought Obama could win West Virginia if he came to “sit down and talk.” Such a proclamation would be all but unthinkable today.
When Clinton formally announced her candidacy last week, the state Republican Party released a statement attacking her. That’s not a surprise, but the statement featured a photo of a jubilant Clinton holding hands with Manchin — still one of West Virginia’s most popular political figures — at that 2007 rally.
“I don’t believe that Hillary Clinton’s liberal views will resonate with West Virginians,” state Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas told the Gazette last week. “I feel fully confident the Republican nominee will earn just as much of a victory as Mitt Romney did over Barack Obama.”
That’s a high bar. Clinton can’t do much worse in West Virginia than Obama did in 2012, when a convicted felon, living in a Texas prison, won 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote and beat the sitting president in 10 counties. In the general election, Romney beat Obama by 27 points in West Virginia, even as the president comfortably won re-election.
New state Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore said she thought Clinton would campaign in West Virginia (something Obama did not do in 2012) and could win the state.
“The Clintons have always had a special relationship with people in West Virginia,” Biafore said. “I think they know us because they came from a small state and we know them because he did such a great job when he was president.”
If one thing has changed since Bill Clinton’s time as president and his success in West Virginia, it’s the rise of coal as the Mountain State’s preeminent political issue.
Coal’s decline in Southern West Virginia — spurred largely by depleted seams and the rise of cheap natural gas, and in part by federal environmental regulations — has become a cudgel for Republicans accusing Democrats of abetting a “war on coal.”
And, both parties agree, it will continue to be an issue in West Virginia politics in 2016.
“Coal, of course, is the foundation of our state economy and will always be a top priority for voters,” Lucas said. “I do believe it will play as big a role in 2016.”
“Coal’s going to be an issue no matter who the candidate is on either side, it’s something that West Virginia looks at, but it’s also something that we have to take another look at,” Biafore said. “Because of the abundance of natural gas and some of these other issues, I think we have to look at the energy package as a whole, but is it still going to include coal? Yeah.”
Obama’s proposal to regulate carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants was challenged in federal court last week, in a lawsuit led by state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. The judges seemed skeptical of the challenge — the rule has not even been finalized yet — but the issue will certainly be in litigation throughout the 2016 campaign.
Manchin said Clinton “understands what this country’s about, the balance that we need in an energy mix.
“Whatever energy of the future may be, and wherever that may come, until then you’ve got to use all the resources,” he said. “She understands that.”
Clinton has not addressed the topic in her still-nascent campaign, but her past statements on the topic seem likely to be used against her by West Virginia Republicans.
“America’s ability to lead the world on climate change hinges on what we do here at home, no other country will fall in line just because we tell them to, they have to see us doing it,” Clinton said at a December speech to the League of Conservation Voters. “Power plants account for about 40 percent of the carbon pollution in the United States and therefor must be addressed, and the unprecedented action that President Obama has taken must be protected at all cost.”