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Progressive Group Tilting at Windmills?

A piece I wrote last week about the progressive group WV Can’t Wait launching ReplaceJoeManchin.com went viral on social media, being shared far and wide, including by national political outlets.

That piece received 39 retweets, 112 quote tweets, and 260 likes on Twitter, shared by people such as the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, NBC News national political reporter Sahil Kapur, Jessica Taylor with the Cook Political Report, and Washington Monthly writer Bill Scher.

I’ve gone through many of the retweets and comments. I’m usually reluctant to put too much stock in what people say on Twitter. I put my stock in you, the readers of this column and my articles. But According to the Pew Research Center, adult Twitter users are more likely to be registered with the Democratic Party.

With that in mind, the reaction to the group led by community organizer and former Democratic candidate for governor Stephen Smith creating a fundraising campaign to build a framework that can either take on U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin in an election or replace him if he retires was met with overwhelming negativity.

One lobbyist I talk to frequently fixed the headline for my story for me, changing it to “Progressive Group Launches Renewed Effort to Hand Election to GOP.”

Talking with Smith last week, he was certainly earnest enough about the effort to oust Manchin. They know it could take longer than Manchin’s next election in 2024. Their goal is to get more of the candidates that affiliate with WV Can’t Wait’s platform — a progressive and Democratic socialist’s wish list of public policy solutions — into city, county, state, and federal offices.

Smith is right: it’s going to take more than an election cycle to make the changes they want to make. It truly could take generations given the political make-up of the state.

First, how much support does WV Can’t Wait even have with the public? Not much. According to WV Can’t Wait, they had 101 candidates that agreed with its platform and to not take corporate donations. Between 2020 and 2021, they got 14 of those candidates elected.

Many of those candidates were city council members in municipalities. Maybe a handful of county commissioners. If you recall, I tabulated their numbers for WV Can’t Wait’s success — or lack of success — at the congressional and statehouse level.

Out of 38 WV Can’t Wait candidates for U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, Board of Public Works seats, and the Legislature, 34 candidates lost. They lost incumbent Delegates Amanda Estep-Burton, Sammie Brown and Rodney Pyles. Only delegate incumbents Cody Thompson and Danielle Walker returned for the 2021 legislative session, joined by newcomers Ric Griffith and Jim Barach.

Smith himself lost the Democratic primary for governor to Ben Salango 39% to 34% — a 5-point margin. That was after launching his campaign in the fall of 2018, giving him 1½ years to campaign. Obviously, some of that time was blunted by the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring before the primary (which was moved up a month).

Progressives simply did not fare well against Republicans in West Virginia in 2020. Paula Jean Swearingen, the Democratic challenger to U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, lost by 43 points (and Manchin beat Swearingen by 40 points in the 2018 Democratic primary. She has since left the Democratic Party to start her own movement).

Looking at Congress, 1st District Congressman David McKinley beat Democratic challenger Natalie Cline by 37 points, 2nd District Congressman Alex Mooney beat Democratic challenger Cathy Kunkel by 26 points and 3rd District Congresswoman Carol Miller beat Democratic challenger Hilary Turner by more than 42 points. Every progressive that’s challenged a U.S. senator or member of Congress in the last 11 years has lost.

Republicans also hold the lead in voter registration since February and that number of registered Republicans has only continued to grow. It’s apparent from the lopsided totals that a sizable number of registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters are also voting Republican.

One would think, then, that the smart move for WV Can’t Wait would be working to get its activists onto the West Virginia Democratic Executive Committee and the 55 county committees. That would be a surefire way to disrupt the Manchin machine as they claim to want. There are still active Democratic Party members upset with Chairwoman Belinda Biafore’s handling of the Affirmative Action plan for the state party.

I asked Smith if WV Can’t Wait should focus on getting elected to the executive committees and changing things from the inside.

“We’re not interested in taking over the Democratic Party,” Smith said. “We’re interested in replacing who governs.”

So, what is the real plan here? Many people I’ve talked to believe the purpose of the ReplaceJoeManchin.com stunt is to raise money from out-of-state supporters of progressive causes in order to fund a campaign for Smith to challenge Manchin in 2024. Smith raised more than $975,000 during his race for governor almost totally from small-dollar donations. But many of those fundraising events took place out-of-state.

Simply saying the name “Manchin” is sure to light a fire in the eyes of national progressive activists and donors. But if they think with their brain instead of their heart, I wonder how quickly they will open their wallets given the track record of progressive political efforts in the state.


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