Midterm elections have historically served as a referendum of those in power. With Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, that could be the case this November, especially in one of West Virginia’s biggest races -- the race for U.S. Senate.
There are a slew of issues at play, but much of the race has been about how much, or when, the candidates have attempted to align themselves with President Donald Trump.
With Trump winning West Virginia by more than 40 percentage points and remaining popular here, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin acknowledges that the president swung many Democrats to vote red in 2016.
“It was disgruntled Democrats that voted for President Trump that made him president.” Manchin said.
But the Democratic incumbent also notes that Trump has also been a divisive, polarizing figure.
“So with that being said, we're all looking for that leadership, and leadership starts clear at the top with all of us being elected officials,” he said.
Manchin has been in and out of the president’s favor since Trump took office in January 2017.
His voting record indicates he’s willing to cooperate with Trump. He’s broken from a majority of Democrats 28.3 percent of the time during the 115th Congress, ranking him number one among all 100 U.S. Senators in breaking with their parties.
But his challenger in 2018 -- Republican state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey -- has aligned himself closely with Trump.
Morrisey paints Manchin as a political opportunist — one who will side with the president as a matter of convenience.
“I’m a strong supporter of the president and I want to help advance his policies because I think he’s been good for West Virginia. Joe Manchin? Well, he’s going to be joining the impeach, resist, obstruct crowd. He’s going to go after this president. It’s really clear,” Morrisey said.
In response, Manchin’s campaign wouldn’t say whether he would support impeachment in the U.S. House if Democrats take control of Congress.
However, Manchin says this election isn’t just about Trump.
“It’s never a referendum on any one person. It’s basically, ‘What do we stand for?’ People want health care,” Manchin said. “People don’t want to be thrown off if they have a pre-existing condition and don’t want the insurance companies to be in charge.”
Healthcare, particularly the Affordable Care Act and some of its provisions, has been widely discussed as the 2018 midterms draw closer. While it’s an issue that has weaved in and out of the spotlight this election season, it’s always been a big one for West Virginia.
An August report from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 36 percent of non-elderly West Virginians have a pre-existing condition, putting that number just under 400,000.
Manchin’s campaign has attacked Morrisey for trying to end protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Morrisey denies that position, although he has signed on to a lawsuit that would end the Affordable Care Act.
“I am a strong supporter of getting rid of Obamacare and the skyrocketing premiums. In West Virginia, premiums have risen over 160 percent in four years. That’s the goal of the lawsuit. It’s not to eliminate protections for those with pre-existing conditions,” Morrisey said.
The Morrisey campaign cites a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report showing pre-ACA premiums in 2013 had jumped 169 percent by 2017.
But, a recent data analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows a premium increase of 93 percent from 2014 to 2018 for the second-lowest silver plan -- which is used as a benchmark for rates. That’s because that plan is used to determine the level of federal subsidies.
Like everything in a debate on healthcare, things are complicated. But, the bottom line: the lawsuit in question, Texas v. United States, seeks to invalidate the ACA entirely -- and would end protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
There’s other issues at play in this race, too, like immigration. Morrisey again sides with the Trump administration.
“We're going to tighten the border. So I'm going to support the president and we're going to tighten that up so we can actually have better enforcement. We're also going to put a lot of pressure on the state to make sure that there's better state police and enforcement around our own borders here in West Virginia,” Morrisey said.
Some see Trump’s hardline stance on immigration as part of a larger narrative of divisive rhetoric that’s catalyzed anti-semitic acts of violence and led to the attempted targeting of prominent Democrats with bombs being addressed to them in recent weeks.
Manchin said Trump’s rhetoric -- whether or not it’s caused recent violence -- needs to be reeled in.
“Well, he needs to calm that down -- he needs to tone that down. There's a lot of things he's done that’s been good for American and good for West Virginia and I'll work with him. But there's a lot of things that's not. We need to repair that, but he has to be the president of all the people,” Manchin said.
How much President Trump might influence West Virginians remains to be seen.
But with Trump coming to West Virginia yet again later this week to stump for Morrisey, it’s clear the president’s backing is part of the GOP’s challenger’s overall strategy.
As for Manchin, he’s relying on a familiar position as a moderate Democrat, one willing to work with Trump but also stand up to him when he feels it necessary.
The two candidates have one debate scheduled ahead of the November 6 election. The two candidates will square off at 7 tonight in Morgantown. West Virginia Public Broadcasting will carry the debate live on television.