What does Manchin’s Win Mean for West Virginia’s Women?

February 27, 2023

Incumbent Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) drew a large primary crowd this year. National media coverage focused primarily on his challengers in the GOP race, largely due to the over-the-top campaign of ex-felon Don Blankenship, who claimed to be “Trumpier than Trump.”

But Manchin also faced a challenge from within his own party. Manchin won handily, though his opponent, Paula Jean Swearengin, did better than expected, particularly in light of the large disparity in fundraising between the two candidates. Manchin had $5.4 million in cash on hand at the end of March, compared to Swearengin’s $54,000.

Elizabeth Catte, author of What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia, took to Twitter to put Swearengin’s loss into perspective. “The story for me here,” Catte writes, “is that Paula Jean Swearengin, the Democratic underdog brought to you by Bernie Sanders, got around the same number of voters as the GOP primary winner.” Swearengin won 47,661 votes, compared to Republican Patrick Morrisey who emerged victorious with 47,774 votes.

Who are the Democrats who voted for Swearengin? Polling in the state is fairly thin, so we can only speculate. It seems likely that some support came from disaffected liberal Democrats, who are reacting to Manchin’s voting record of late.

Manchin has received national attention for defecting to vote with Republicans on a number of recent high-profile policy issues and nominations. Since 2016, he’s voted in line with President Trump’s position 61.4% of the time – the highest rate among all Democratic Senators except Doug Jones (D-AL), who took office in January.  And just last month, Manchin experienced the biggest decline in job approval of any sitting Senator.

Swearengin may also have drawn support from female Democrats who mobilized around the teacher’s strike earlier this spring. The strike pitted a predominantly female group of teacher-activists against a predominantly male state legislature, as women’s representation in West Virginia’s  government ranks 48th among U.S. states. This experience may have solidified a preference for greater female representation in government, attracting women to candidates like Swearengin.

What, if anything, will Manchin do to appeal to women voters during the general election campaign? It’s hard to say. Thus far, Manchin’s ads have primarily featured men. One of his #IKnowJoe ads includes a series of coal miners praising Manchin’s efforts to secure health care for them. Mining is also the framework for his “Never Change” ad, which he begins by talking about the death of relatives and friends in the Farmington No. 9 mine explosion. The ad ends with a montage of scenes of Manchin talking with other men – one-on-one and in a group of men, all of whom lean on a pickup truck. And the ad “Miners” also follows this trend, depicting a series of exclusively male miners, while Manchin discusses his loyalty to the “hardworking people” of the state.

Of course, mining is a predominantly male profession. And coal plays an important part in the state’s economy, serving essentially as a political identity for many West Virginians. But Manchin’s other ads are similarly focused on his male constituents. In two other #IKnowJoe ads, men do all of the talking about Manchin’s work on behalf of veterans and efforts to reform workman’s compensation. And who are they talking to? The ads seem be microtargeting working-class men in particular professions, rather than appealing to a broader cross-section of West Virginians.

One of the only women featured in Manchin’s ads thus far is his wife, who is shown giving him a free haircut to drive home his message about frugality. She doesn’t say much, other than to affirm that he is, in fact, cheap. She’s mainly in the background, grooming him for an upcoming appearance.

Manchin has been labeled one of the 10 most vulnerable Senators in 2018. And the day after the primary, Manchin was the first Democratic Senator to announce that he will vote to confirm Gina Haspel, Trump’s controversial nominee to direct the CIA. While some Democrats, and Democratic women in particular, may be dissatisfied with Manchin, it’s not clear this dissatisfaction will have a meaningful effect on his campaign. Morrisey’s conservatism, coupled with Trump’s high favorability in the state, will likely continue to pull Manchin toward the center. And the continued importance of coal for voters in the state will likely keep the focus of Manchin’s campaign firmly rooted in appeals to masculinity.

But West Virginian women do have some new female candidates to mobilize around. Women candidates have emerged from the primaries in all three congressional districts. Democrat Kendra Fershee, a professor of Law at West Virginia University, will challenge incumbent Republican David McKinley in the first congressional district. Democrat Talley Sergent, formerly of the Hillary Clinton campaign, will challenge Alex Mooney in the second congressional district. And Republican Carol Miller will run in the open seat contest in the state’s third congressional district. Women’s success in these races could play an important role in bringing women to the polls and improving women’s representation in the state.

Erin C. Cassese is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Harriet E. Lyon Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at West Virginia University. Follow her on Twitter at @ErinCassese.