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Joe Manchin

The erosion of the Senate’s deal-making middle

Rob Portman. Roy Blunt. Lamar Alexander. Jeff Flake. Bob Corker. Mitt Romney.

They all had one thing in common — they’re deal-making conservatives who decided not to run for reelection in the era of Donald Trump. And nearly all of them were replaced with Trump loyalists.

Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) decision to forgo reelection in 2024 is very likely to usher in another Trump ally in Republican Gov. Jim Justice.

Whatever you think about Manchin, his retirement from the Senate will serve as yet another data point in a multi-year trend in the upper chamber — the erosion of the deal-making middle in both parties.

“All of us who are in that deal-making mode — and I consider myself one — will just have to do more,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said. “But nobody’s indispensable here.”

There are still influential and capable members who can reach compromises. But the 2024 cycle has already seen high-profile moderates such as Manchin and Romney bow out.

And Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), who has been central to many of the Senate’s big bipartisan deals, is trailing her opponents in a three-way race, according to recent polling. Sinema hasn’t yet said whether she’ll run for reelection.

To be sure, plenty of people are happy that Manchin plans to retire — especially Republican leaders, who are now one step closer to reclaiming the Senate majority.

Manchin has locked arms with fellow Democrats on major issues including President Joe Biden’s signature legislative achievement, the Inflation Reduction Act.

But as the Senate’s most conservative Democrat, Manchin has been considered the most important swing vote on every recent big bill and nomination. That was especially true during the first two years of Biden’s presidency. The Senate operated with a 50-50 Democratic majority but was still able to pass landmark legislation.

Manchin’s independent streak is what has defined him, and it’s why he’s been able to win in deep-red West Virginia. But progressives heavily criticized Manchin, especially over his refusal to get rid of the Senate’s legislative filibuster and his opposition to climate-change measures.

“I saw this coming — it was, in my opinion, already built into the stock price,” Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) said about Manchin’s decision. “I’ve never said anything personal against the senator… It’s only been, I vote for one thing, he voted another way.”

And on some issues — fossil fuel use, for example — Manchin has been firmly on Republicans’ side. It’s no surprise given the state he represents.

“Sen. Manchin has been a great ally on American energy … and I’ve appreciated working with him on all kinds of stuff,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who has brought Manchin into the fold on efforts to undo some of the Biden administration’s energy policies.

Yet the rise of Trump pushed the GOP in a decidedly more extreme direction. Democrats aren’t just wrong politically, the thinking goes, they’re dangerous — and any Republican who cuts deals with Democrats is, by extension, dangerous and should be removed from office. The fallout from the 2020 election was just gasoline on this fire.

The Senate is pretty much the last bastion of the old pre-Trump Republican Party. That starts with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But it also includes other senior Republicans who had the temerity to admit that Trump lost the 2020 election. The end of this special status will accelerate with Trump’s return as the likely 2024 GOP presidential nominee.

The rise of Trumpism, conversely, pushed Democrats even further to the left, which explains why Manchin felt increasingly isolated within his own party.

Yet while the base focuses on what Manchin and Sinema won’t support, they overlook the fact that the pair overwhelmingly voted with Biden, especially on Supreme Court and other judicial nominees — a major White House priority.

— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.