‘Two different sides of a coin.’ Manchin, Sinema, and Democrats’ future

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a key holdout vote on President Joe Biden's domestic agenda, chairs a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, at the Capitol in Washington Oct. 19, 2021.

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In news clips and “Saturday Night Live” skits, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are often lumped together: two centrist Democrats standing in firm opposition to progressives, as they wrangle over the scope of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act. 

But “Manchinema,” as the two have been dubbed, aren’t exactly a united front. Not only are the senators different on a personal level – one’s a folksy former coal executive from West Virginia, the other an idiosyncratic ex-Green Party activist from Arizona – but they also appear to have different legislative priorities. 

Why We Wrote This

If West Virginia represents the Democratic Party of the past, Arizona might represent its future. Can the White House find a compromise that appeals to both rural voters who’ve been fleeing their party and college-educated suburbanites who are shifting left?

These differing priorities reflect the politics of their respective states. Senator Manchin represents a shrinking group of mostly rural, white voters without college degrees – many of whom have left the Democratic Party for the GOP. Senator Sinema hails from a fast-growing state where the Democratic Party is gaining converts, as suburbs outside booming cities like Phoenix turn blue.

The recent wrangling over Mr. Biden’s agenda can be seen as a high-wire effort to bridge those divides.

“West Virginia and Arizona are two different sides of a coin,” says Steven Allan Adams, a West Virginia state government reporter.

In news clips and “Saturday Night Live” skits, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are often lumped together: two centrist Democrats standing in firm opposition to progressives, as they wrangle over the scope of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act. 

But “Manchinema,” as the two have been dubbed, aren’t exactly a united front. Not only are the senators different on a personal level – one’s a folksy former coal executive from West Virginia, the other an idiosyncratic ex-Green Party activist from Arizona – but they also appear to have different legislative priorities. 

Which has made Democrats’ efforts to negotiate a compromise even more complicated.

Why We Wrote This

If West Virginia represents the Democratic Party of the past, Arizona might represent its future. Can the White House find a compromise that appeals to both rural voters who’ve been fleeing their party and college-educated suburbanites who are shifting left?

The White House met privately with both Senators Manchin and Sinema on Tuesday, and details about likely cuts and changes to the bill have begun to emerge, driven in large part by those two lawmakers’ respective demands.

From the start, Mr. Manchin has indicated opposition to many of the proposed climate change provisions, such as a clean electricity program or a carbon tax, both of which now appear unlikely to make it into the final bill. He’s expressed support for targeted spending that benefits low-income Americans, but not for free community college, another provision that is reportedly being axed. On the revenue side, he favors tax-rate increases for wealthy Americans and corporations, and he has publicly said he thinks Medicare should be allowed to negotiate prescription drug prices.

Ms. Sinema has been far more tight-lipped. News reports have indicated, however, that she is resisting many of the revenue-raising parts of the bill, such as higher corporate and income taxes. She’s also reportedly unenthusiastic about the prescription drug pricing proposal. But the senator’s office denied a recent New York Times report that she was seeking to sharply cut climate measures as “flat wrong.” In an interview last month with The Arizona Republic, she detailed myriad ways in which “a changing climate costs Arizonans,” saying she viewed the budget bill as a chance to address the issue.

Rod Lamkey/AP
Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, shown during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Oct. 19, 2021, has been tight-lipped this fall about her objections to President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan.

These differing priorities in some ways reflect the politics of their respective states and electorates. Mr. Manchin represents a shrinking group of mostly rural, white voters without college degrees – many of whom have left the Democratic Party for the GOP. Ms. Sinema, on the other hand, hails from a fast-growing state where the Democratic Party is gaining converts, as formerly Republican suburbs outside booming cities like Phoenix turn blue. Put another way, if West Virginia represents the Democratic Party of the past, Arizona might represent its future. And the recent wrangling over Mr. Biden’s agenda can be seen as a high-wire effort to bridge those divides.

“West Virginia and Arizona are two different sides of a coin,” says Steven Allan Adams, a West Virginia state government reporter and former communications specialist for the West Virginia Senate. 

“In Arizona you see a state that is known for being the birthplace of conservatives, but in the last couple years it has gone more of a purple, and maybe in the next few years it will be blue,” he says. “West Virginia is the opposite of that.”

In West Virginia, last Democrat standing

Party leaders have given themselves a deadline of the end of the month to come up with a framework that will satisfy both progressives and moderates. Democrats are planning to pass the Build Back Better Act using a process called budget reconciliation, which allows them to avoid a GOP filibuster in the Senate. With just 50 Democrats in that chamber, the party cannot afford to lose even one vote, which means both Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema (along with every other Democratic senator) will need to be on board.

But alleviating the different concerns of those two lawmakers has not been easy. And while some of their objections have been attributed to the senators’ own ideological views – or, more cynically, their financial interests – much of it also clearly reflects attitudes in their home states. 

West Virginia was one of only three states in the nation that saw its population decline over the past 10 years; it will lose one of its U.S. House seats in redistricting this year. The state capital of Charleston was the country’s fastest-shrinking city in the 2020 census. 

The Democratic Party in West Virginia has been shrinking even faster, with registered Republicans now outnumbering registered Democrats. Considered reliably Democratic only a few decades ago, the Mountain State has now become just as reliably Republican. In 2020 then-President Donald Trump won there with almost 69% of the vote – his second-largest margin in any state.  

“It’s a depressing time to be a Democratic leader in West Virginia,” says John Kilwein, chair of the West Virginia University department of political science. 

Mr. Manchin, West Virginia’s only remaining statewide elected Democrat, won reelection to a second term in 2018 by only 3 percentage points, helped in part by an unpopular Republican opponent.

“The state is moving so red around Joe Manchin that [2024] is going to be a tough battle for him,” says Mr. Kilwein. Still, he suggests that all the attention the senator has received for bucking his own party on the budget bill may be helpful at home.

Mr. Manchin’s reported opposition to many of the package’s climate change programs runs contrary to the almost 70% of national Democrats who call it a “very important” voting issue. But it makes sense coming from a state that has a long history with coal mining. 

“From a strategic point of view, I think this is the best way Manchin could handle [reconciliation bill negotiations] if he’s trying to get reelected,” Mr. Kilwein says.

The West Virginia senator’s approval rating fell a few points in a recent poll of likely voters (from 49% last year to 44% now), but the percentage of West Virginians who disapprove of Mr. Manchin has also decreased, from 44% to 37%. 

Even if some West Virginia Democrats are unhappy with Mr. Manchin’s stance, most likely understand that he represents their only realistic option for holding the seat.

“If you’re still a Democrat in West Virginia, you’re probably very liberal, but you’re also probably pretty practical and you understand that Manchin is probably your only choice,” says Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist and director of the University of Southern California’s Dornsife Center for the Political Future. 

Democrats growing in fast-growing state

Unlike West Virginia, Arizona saw its population grow by almost 12% over the past decade, with two of the nation’s fastest-growing cities in the 2020 census. The population of Buckeye, a suburb of Phoenix, increased by almost 57%. 

And Arizona’s Democratic Party has grown simultaneously. The number of registered Republicans still outnumbers registered Democrats statewide, but Democrats have added more voters to their rolls in the past two years than the GOP. For the first time in almost seven decades, Arizona has two Democratic senators: Ms. Sinema and former astronaut Mark Kelly, who won a special election in 2020.

As the state shifts left, there are signs that Ms. Sinema’s opposition to some progressive priorities could land her a primary challenger in 2024: A Primary Sinema PAC has already been created to help fund an opponent. A recent poll of likely Democratic voters in Arizona found Ms. Sinema’s approval rating to be a dismal 25%, while 85% approved of Mr. Biden and Senator Kelly.

“People here are frustrated with her,” says Matt Grodsky, an Arizona-based political strategist and former director of communications for the Arizona Democratic Party. “She’s at odds with what commonsense Arizona voters are thinking.” 

Coming from one of the nation’s hottest and driest states, Ms. Sinema has in the past expressed support for climate change measures, though she hasn’t revealed where she stands on the current proposals.

“Voters in Arizona really do support those types of investments toward a green energy economy,” says Tony Cani, an Arizona political strategist and former deputy director of Biden for Arizona. “There are signs that a number of companies and innovators are coming to this state to set up shop.”

But some Democratic critics believe she’s underestimated levels of support back home for certain social programs.

Prescription drug pricing reform, for example, polls well with all voters, not just Democrats. According to one survey, more than 80% of adults nationwide favor allowing the government to negotiate with drug companies to lower prescription drug prices. Critics counter that it could hinder pharmaceutical companies’ ability to develop and bring new drugs to market. 

“Politically, Manchin’s actions are more defensible given the state he represents and his political profile,” says Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “Sinema doesn’t have the same rationale to lean on. Her quixotic approach is less palatable to her base and leaves them wondering, ‘Why are you throwing sand in the gears?’”

Ms. Sinema’s strongest reservations appear to be on the revenue side. She’s reportedly questioned tax hikes for both individuals and large corporations, which critics say could hurt American businesses’ global competitiveness.

That stance may make sense coming from a state with such conservative roots, and which has grown in part by luring workers from neighboring high-tax California. This year, Arizona’s GOP-led State Legislature passed sweeping income tax cuts, moving the state from a progressive system to two flat rates. Still, the issue is contentious: The new cuts were in response to a ballot measure passed by voters in 2020 to raise taxes on Arizonans making over $250,000 per year. Activists are gathering signatures to try to block the law from taking effect.

Critics point out that Ms. Sinema’s fellow Arizonan, Senator Kelly, hasn’t been putting up roadblocks, suggesting a different political calculus that some see as more in tune with the fast-changing state.

Above any one program, says Mr. Cani, Arizona voters are “super transactional” and want the government to get things done.

“I don’t think she wants her brand to be ‘I’m the one who is stopping government,’” says Mr. Cani. “And that’s not who the people of Arizona want her to be.”

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