FARMINGTON, W.V.—The sumac and sugar maples have lost their flaming red leaves and the hardwood forests marching up West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains are bare and gray the week after Thanksgiving.
In Farmington, where Little Lauren Run meets Buffalo Creek, the half-square-mile town of about 400 residents is preparing for the holidays. Candy canes line Main Street and a Christmas tree stands near a fire ring at City Hall. Buck hunting season is ending, and the state championship football game—pitting two local high schools—is days away.
Otherwise, it’s a quiet weekday afternoon under an ambivalent Appalachian sun. There are no cars in the Family Dollar Store parking lot. The post office, Bank of Farmington, Cut’n Loose hair salon, and Bakers Nook are open and mostly empty.
This is Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.V.) hometown. It’s where his grandfather owned a grocery store, his father built a furniture business, and where his family produced two mayors and a secretary of state who helped John F. Kennedy take the state and win the presidency in 1960.
It’s where in the mid-1960s, teenage quarterback Joe Manchin III made a name for himself by following in the footsteps of NFL Hall of Famer Sam Huff, his hometown idol, to play football for West Virginia University.
He’d never play a snap for the Mountaineers after a freshman knee injury, but the future governor and two-term U.S. senator became a household name across the state and country nevertheless.
In Farmington, however, ask locals about “Mr. Manchin,” and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin isn’t who they think of first, despite road signs touting it as the hometown of the senator.
Across Marion County, the senator is known as the brother of Dr. John Manchin Jr., who has operated Farmington’s Manchin Clinic since 1979; the first cousin of Tim Manchin, whose Manchin Injury Law Group in nearby Fairmont, West Virginia, is featured prominently on roadside billboards; and the father of Joe Manchin IV, who runs Enersystems, which sells gob—a waste coal, rock, and clay mix—to Grant Town’s power plant.
“Joe Manchin? The senator? That Manchin?” asks Cecil Delmarten of Morgantown, West Virginia, testing a bait-caster reel on Buffalo Creek. “Hear a lot about him, but I’ve never seen him around here.”
“We usually get a few big orders from them for the holidays,” says a deliveryman, rolling eight dolly-stacked cases of Bud Light into a Circle K in Fairview, West Virginia. “Is Sen. Manchin in the same family? I don’t know. They’re a big family.”
“The only Manchin I know is the doctor up the road,” a Family Dollar Store shopper said, declining to provide her name. “I see the senator on TV, but I don’t know him.”
Gary, a fifth-generation coal miner, said that a decade ago, when West Virginia had 25,000 working the mines, people felt that they knew the senator. Now, he said, there are about 11,000 coal miners left in the state, and Mr. Manchin is a mystery.
“Coal miners have some mixed emotions about him,” he said.
When Mr. Manchin announced in early November that he wouldn’t seek a third Senate term and, instead, would tour the country “to mobilize the middle” and, perhaps, launch an independent 2024 presidential run, many believed that he was saying goodbye to his home state.
“There’s no middle on these country roads,” Gary said.
In Farmington, the biggest buzz is the sound of passing traffic on U.S. 250, which traces Buffalo Creek east to Fairmont. There, the creek joins the Monongahela River and flows north to Pittsburgh, where it merges with the Allegheny to form the headwaters of the Ohio River before rolling into the Mississippi and onto the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s a long way—thousands of twisting, meandering miles north, west, and south—from the beginning to the end for the waters of the holler-born creek named after an animal extinct in West Virginia for 200 years.
Republicans Say He Sealed His Own FateMr. Manchin is, indeed, the last of his ilk in West Virginia—a moderate, if not conservative, toss-back centrist to the days when the labor-led state voted reliably blue in state and congressional elections.
Before 2014, West Virginia was led by a Democrat governor, and Democrats controlled both state legislative chambers, had two Democrat U.S. senators, and held two of three congressional seats. Since then, Republicans have dominated.
The GOP now has a trifecta in the capital, Charleston, with an 89–11 state House of Delegates majority and a 31–3 majority in the state Senate. Two of the three remaining Democrats in the state Senate are opting not to run in 2024. West Virginia’s two Congress members are Republicans, its other U.S. senator is a Republican, and the state voted 70 percent for then-President Donald Trump in 2020, a margin exceeded only by Wyoming.
The National Republican Senate Committee has targeted his seat, as well as those held by Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), also Democrat incumbents in states won by President Trump in 2020, as “most flippable” in its 2024 plan to reclaim a chamber now led 51–49 by Democrats and the independents who caucus with them.
The two leading Senate GOP rivals are West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.V.). Mr. Manchin recruited Mr. Justice, a former Democrat, to run for governor in 2015. President Trump endorsed Mr. Justice for the U.S. Senate race.
As of early December, the only Democrat in the race is 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran Zach Shrewsbury, a first-time candidate who openly identifies as a socialist. Few give him much chance to defeat either Mr. Justice or Mr. Mooney in November 2024.
Therefore, many believe, the Senate race—in fact, most state and congressional elections—will be determined in the May 14 Republican primary.
While Mr. Manchin’s make-a-deal pliability fostered an outsized stature in national affairs—often casting deciding votes in the closely contested Senate—it also curried critics in both parties and alienated West Virginia voters.
In fact, if the state’s Republicans and Democrats agree about one thing, it’s that Mr. Manchin’s search for the middle won’t find much traction in West Virginia.
His 2022 vote advancing the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which included a natural gas tax, “sealed his fate,” Jason Huffman, director for Americans for Prosperity West Virginia, told The Epoch Times.
He said that over the past 18 months, his organization has knocked on more than 80,000 doors across the state and heard from thousands of voters at events.
“A key finding from those conversations was a sense of betrayal—that Sen. Manchin had chosen President Biden and the Democrat party line over the interests of the state,” Mr. Huffman said. “I think that our effort and this public opinion shift was the key reason that Sen. Manchin chose not to run again. His decision was not a surprise to political observers in West Virginia—he simply had no pathway to victory, and he did it to himself.”
West Virginians see Mr. Manchin’s support—albeit not without concessions favorable to coal, gas, and natural gas—for the IRA as “a bad policy decision” that further diminished the state’s fossil fuel industries and helped to foster inflation, he said.
“The people of West Virginia didn’t ask for a forced transition from the federal government” and see his IRA vote “as an attack on our way of life,” Mr. Huffman said.
“That hit home. I find it disingenuous that he’s talking about ‘the middle,’ considering the positions he’s taken. He saw the writing on the wall. He wasn’t going to get reelected here.”
For many Republicans, Mr. Manchin also committed the unpardonable: voting twice to impeach President Trump.
West Virginia Attorney General and 2024 gubernatorial candidate Patrick Morrisey, who lost his 2018 Senate race to Mr. Manchin by 3 percentage points, said that “Manchin is a tough competitor” but can no longer rely on centrist stances to survive after the state’s “electoral shift, re-alignment” moved voters clearly to the right.
“We thank Sen. Manchin for his service,” he told The Epoch Times. “I’m not here to talk about what might be in the middle, or the left, or the right. Right now, this administration and its allies have pushed us so far over in the wrong direction that our country’s hurting—hurting from an economic perspective, hurting in terms of a loss of American energy independence.”
Democrats Say ‘Washington Joe’ Got to GoRepublicans are relatively reserved compared to what many Democrats say about Mr. Manchin, citing his votes against raising the corporate tax and for trimming COVID-19 pandemic unemployment benefits, his derailing of an election-reform bill, and for refusing to modify filibuster rules, while watering down the IRA and burying the 2021 “Build Back Better” bill.
They cite his income, between $450,000 and $550,000 a year, as founder of Enersystems, the coal brokerage that his son now runs, and his 65-foot yacht Almost Heaven anchored in a Washington marina that “Washington Joe” lives on when Congress is in session.
Democrat organizer Shane Assadzandi said Mr. Manchin would have lost his 2018 reelection if Democrats weren’t galvanized by a teachers’ strike and Amendment 1, which asked voters to confirm “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.”
Although the measure ultimately passed by fewer than 20,000 votes, he said: “There was so much organizing energy [that] Democrats picked up seats in both chambers in Charleston.
“Now think about that for a second. Democrats in West Virginia walked out of that election with gains in the House of Delegates and in the state Senate, and Joe Manchin barely squeaked it out against Patrick Morrisey by 3 percentage points.”
Speaking to supporters at Mr. Shrewsbury’s Nov. 28 Morgantown campaign launch, Mr. Assadzandi said Mr. Manchin “didn’t win that election on his own. He rode your coattails, not the other way around. He got all the power he wanted on the backs of West Virginians.”
With Mr. Justice, a wealthy businessman and mine owner, as the likely Republican Senate nominee, the Democrat in the race—the filing deadline is Jan. 27, 2024—must represent workers, not the same interests as Republican candidates, he said.
“You don’t beat a coal baron with a coal baron,” Mr. Assadzandi said. “You beat a coal baron by organizing up the coal bed, by getting all of your neighbors to vote. You beat a coal baron by standing with West Virginians against corporate interests.”
West Virginia Democratic Party Executive Committee member Deb McCarthy said that Mr. Manchin has been a disappointment in addressing the “pitiful, pitiful state” of health care, a source of disillusionment for voters, and disenfranchisement for millions in opposing voting reforms.
“His personal interests controlled his political interests, and that left a lot of people behind,” she told The Epoch Times.
With Mr. Manchin out, West Virginia Democrats won’t have to vote for “the lesser of two evils” in 2024, former House Del. Danielle Walker said, nor have to “rent a tugboat to idle up to his yacht down in D.C.” to get in a word.
House of Delegates candidate Devon Tennant, a Democrat, told The Epoch Times that he “misses Gov. Manchin” and will “miss parts of Sen. Manchin, but I think there’s room for improvement, and we have a better Democrat running now [in Mr. Shrewsbury],” calling 2024 “a good new beginning to the end of the Manchin era.”
He said that he “respects” Mr. Manchin’s “search for the middle, as opposed to being left or right,” because West Virginians have never trusted hyperpartisan ideologues.
“I still think bipartisanship is what West Virginians want,” Mr. Tennant said. “I still think they don’t like the labels.”
But maybe moderation is now as extinct in the state as the wood bison.