Joe Manchin’s Yes on Kavanaugh Finds Sympathy in West Virginia

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When Senator Joe Manchin III became the lone Democrat to support Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court on Saturday, protesters in the Capitol screamed “shame.”

But in his home state of West Virginia, voters were, if not encouraging, at least understanding: He had saved himself from political suicide.

“Joe Manchin knows that the people of this state, we are God-fearing, pro-gun, pro-life,” said Kevin Dalton, an emergency dispatcher from the former coal town of Madison. “His constituents out here told him basically, ‘You vote this guy in or we’re going to vote you out.’ He figured he better stay in with his people.”

Both Republicans and Democrats in this historic capital along the Kanawha River seemed to extend Mr. Manchin some sympathy for a wrenching Supreme Court vote that came amid his increasingly tense battle to win re-election. Mr. Manchin, 71, seeking his second full term in the Senate after practically a lifetime in West Virginia politics, including service as its 34th governor, was the last undecided senator to announce how he would vote on Justice Kavanaugh.

To his supporters, his decision to stand apart from his party in one of the nation’s most contentious and bitter political battles in years proved he is attuned to the will of West Virginians and will stand firm against national party pressure. To his detractors, it was a classic example of the senator’s tendency to flip-flop, a nakedly political vote cast to ensure his re-election.

President Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. took a shot at Mr. Manchin instead of praising him, slamming him as a “Lyin’ liberal” who waited until Justice Kavanaugh “had enough votes secured before he announced his support.”

But in interviews with nearly two dozen West Virginians, both camps largely and ungrudgingly conceded that his vote was politically necessary in a state that Mr. Trump won with 68 percent of the vote, and where support for a conservative justice is overwhelming, even among the senator’s oddball coalition that includes Republicans and Trump-supporting Democrats.

“Joe Manchin knows that the people of this state, we are God-fearing, pro-gun, pro-life,” said Kevin Dalton, an emergency dispatcher.CreditEmma Howells for The New York Times

It is also true that Mr. Manchin announced his support only after Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, announced hers, ensuring that Justice Kavanaugh would get the 50 votes he needed. Mr. Manchin’s “yes” merely saved the justice the ignominy of securing his Supreme Court seat with a tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.

Mr. Dalton, who was selling kettle corn at the annual Charleston Rod Run and Doo Wop car show, said he has long identified as a Democrat, but has increasingly become unhappy with the party’s values and supports President Trump. He had been mulling voting against Mr. Manchin but, citing his confirmation vote, has decided he will vote for the incumbent in November after all.

For a few — mostly young women — Mr. Manchin’s vote cost him their support. But with a resigned nod to the state’s political climate, most of those who opposed Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation said they would still support Mr. Manchin in November.

“The progressive side will tell you, we’ve got to vote for him,” said the Rev. Jim Lewis, a Charleston liberal activist and Episcopalian priest who personally implored the senator’s office to vote against the nominee.

In West Virginia, when it comes to party affiliation, “it’s hard to tell one from the other,” Father Lewis explained, perched on a stool at First Watch, a diner here. Mr. Manchin “straddles that very well,” he added.

At the town’s sprawling three-story shopping mall, at a popular breakfast nook, and at the automobile show downtown, Father Lewis’s assessment rang true.

Leo Bode, an independent voter who was taking a break with his family at the Charleston Town Center mall from shopping, said he was initially undecided about Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation, even after allegations he engaged in sexual misconduct in high school and college emerged. But his view of the nominee dimmed after he delivered an aggressive, defiant performance defending himself against Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of sexual assault.

“His outburst during the hearing was not very appropriate,” Mr. Bode said.

After that performance, Mr. Bode said, he was “disappointed” that Mr. Manchin supported his confirmation. But he still plans to support the senator at the ballot box in November.

“Even though he broke from Democrat to Republican, so many of them in Congress now are voting straight ticket, which is not for the people,” he said. “That’s a concern of mine.”

Barbara Teel of Charleston, a Democrat who said she has “always” supported Mr. Manchin, agreed. Not only was there enormous political pressure for Mr. Manchin to vote for the justice, she said over lunch with her husband, a Republican who also supports the senator, but it was the right thing to do. And she was scathing in her review of how Senate Democrats handled the confirmation process: “Terrible.”

“They’re trying to make it about the Me Too movement, but I think it was more about his stance on Roe,” she said.

Charges of sexual misconduct, in fact, seemed to be of little importance to many voters, who found the testimony of Dr. Blasey to be either not credible or irrelevant.

“What people do in high school is a long way in the past, and I think it’s hard to really judge things that happened that far back,” Mr. Bode said.

Bette Ware, who lives in Charleston and was shopping at the mall with her teenage daughter, cautioned, “I’m not against women of course; I am against sexual harassment and rape.” But she added, “I don’t think she was convincing.”

“As much as I love Senator Joe Manchin, with that decision he made, he doesn’t get my vote anymore,” said Tia Smith, a Democrat.CreditEmma Howells for The New York Times

“She didn’t remember anything about it,” she said. “I truly believe if that happens, you’re going to remember every detail.”

Other voters — mostly women — did find Dr. Blasey’s testimony credible and were aghast to see Justice Kavanaugh elevated to the Supreme Court. Tia Smith, a Democrat who was eating lunch with her children, said it cost the senator her vote.

“As much as I love Senator Joe Manchin, with that decision he made, he doesn’t get my vote anymore. I think after all that was said and done,” she said, referring to the allegations against Justice Kavanaugh, “I don’t think that was a wise decision. It’s like he’s out for himself.”

But such sentiments were scarce even 24 hours after the final vote, when emotions should have been raw. That is in part because of the disdain with which many seem to view Mr. Manchin’s opponent, the state’s Republican attorney general, Patrick Morrisey.

Even those who described themselves as politically uninitiated could tick off the sticking points of his résumé, which have been blasted at voters in television ads: Mr. Morrisey grew up and attended college and law school in New Jersey, worked as a lawyer in Washington and lobbied on behalf of a pharmaceutical trade group funded by some of the opioid distributors that the State of West Virginia later sued.

Mention his name and doubtful looks are followed by the inevitable “He’s not from here.”

In contrast, Mr. Manchin’s name recognition carries weight: A 19-year-old at the mall eagerly volunteered that she had met him through a government class she took in high school. A group of elderly women at the car show along the Kanawha River where ships were hauling coal approvingly said they see him out and about in the community, referring to him just as “Joe.”

“Manchin is from here, and we might not agree with everything he does,” Mr. Dalton said. “But at least we know he’s one of us.”

For many voters, Mr. Manchin’s support for Mr. Kavanaugh appears to have cemented that notion.

“I think the majority of the people wanted him to vote for Kavanaugh,” Ms. Ware said. “And he’s supposed to work for the people.”

“And,” she continued with a grim smile, “it’s an election year.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Manchin’s ‘Yes’ on Kavanaugh Finds Sympathy Among West Virginia Voters. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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