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Manchin Needs to Vote His Conscience, Regardless of What That Means for November

Image via Office of Sen. Joe Manchin

“Signs point to another yes vote from Manchin. Yet, for all this posturing, voting out of fear of losing an election is not any more morally commendable than being whipped.”

Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s pick to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, is quickly approaching a confirmation hearing. Republicans could confirm Kavanaugh entirely without Democratic support, as long as Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski—prominent, moderate-Republicans—hold the party line. Only should both break with their party would the result then lie with their moderate Democratic counterparts: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

As such, all three senators have been closely watched from the left. Voting to confirm Kavanaugh would be almost absurdly out of step with the party on the national stage—flaunting calls to protect Roe v. Wade, to protect the ACA, to prevent a conflict of interest should Trump ultimately be indicted, to simply #resist the administration at every turn. These three, especially Manchin, are thus subject to significant coverage and pressure on the national stage. Yet, ultimately, their vote is unlikely to change whether Kavanaugh is placed on the court. While Collins and Murkowski could defect, it seems unlikely that Republicans could fail to confirm.

Then why the hype? Democrats believe that it will help their momentum coming into the midterms. For progressives to turn out in numbers that would fulfill the expectations of a blue wave, these voters need to believe that Democrats have their backs. Unfortunately, if red-state Democrats betray this trust, the resulting discouragement will likely be felt nationwide and could hurt Democratic candidates in all states. For a convincing and cohesive national argument to be made, Democrats must stick together to oppose the administration.

The argument has also been made that opposition to Kavanaugh would be beneficial to these red-state Democrats individually. Dick Polman in The Atlantic posits that such a move might “galvanize grassroots Democrats to show up in strength for the midterm elections,” even in red states. Popular liberal podcaster Jon Favreau claimed, humorously, that there are no “Kavanuts,” that is, voters who would oppose Manchin or another red-state Democrat on their no-vote alone. These arguments rest on the central assumption that Republicans will oppose these candidates no matter how they vote, and a no vote will increase democratic turnout.

This simply isn’t true. There are Kavanuts. Plenty of them, and they aren’t all Republicans. It’s a fair point that moving to the left might increase grassroots engagement—after all, 55 counties went for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary. Yet such an assumption ignores the centrism that has won Manchin his prior races. It ignores the fact 81% of West Virginians personally oppose abortion and 58% believe it should be illegal in all or most cases—a tie for the third highest rate of opposition in the nation. It ignores the fact that while Democrats lead Republicans in voter registration by over 10% of the state’s total, West Virginia has gone swiftly to the far-right, largely on the basis of cultural issues. According to the Trafalgar Group, Manchin’s vote on Kavanaugh could mean a 27 point difference in November, to either heavy favorite with a yes or barely hanging on with a no. I firmly believe that should Manchin choose to oppose Kavanaugh, he will lose his re-election campaign.

Manchin makes his independence a point of pride. He met with Kavanaugh yesterday and has solicited input from voters around the state. He publicly stated that national Democrats trying to whip votes could, “Kiss [his] you know what.” He votes with the President more often than not. Signs point to another yes vote from Manchin. Yet, for all this posturing, voting out of fear of losing an election is not any more morally commendable than being whipped. Manchin has made a career out of being middle of the road. He is the last West Virginia Democrat in national office. He claims that he votes his conscience, though one could counter that it is more calculated than that, that perhaps his shooting an environmental bill with a gun in a 2010 campaign ad was not what his personal moral compass demanded. It doesn’t matter.

Manchin should vote his conscience on Kavanaugh. If that’s a no, then even if he loses, he will be remembered how he claims he wants to be: as a strong individual willing to stand up for what he thought was right. And while he might lose re-election, such a vote could have a positive impact in Democratic turnout nationwide. If his conscience brings him to a yes, then Democrats should be done with him. His centrism will have reached the point where he is a Democrat in name alone. Keeping him under the tent will be a liability and could block the rise of more progressive Democrats to challenge the state’s Republican leadership.

I’m a West Virginian. I’m a Democrat. I hope that Manchin does oppose Kavanaugh, but I’ve hoped Manchin will do a lot of things—and except for helping to protect the ACA, he generally hasn’t. Let him be an Independent. If Democrats actually want to re-take West Virginia, they must free up their resources and unify their messaging to tap into the progressive potential that allowed Bernie Sanders to see such success there. It’s not impossible. The grassroots progressivism cited by Polman and Favreau exists, but Manchin won’t be the one to tap it. And a single vote is not enough to change that.

Vaughn Campbell, a West Virginia native, is a recent graduate of Brown University currently living in Providence, RI.