During the dog days of Democrats negotiating President Biden’s doomed Build Back Better legislation in 2021, one reporter asked then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about her discussions with Sen Joe Manchin, the mercurial conservative Democrat from West Virginia.
“You think I’m going to talk about my conversations with Joe Manchin in here,” she told reporters, before joking she would share “if you promise not to tell anyone.”
She later broke the tension by mentioning what the pair of lawmakers have in common.
“We’re friends, we’re Italian Americans, we get along,” she said. “We’re Catholic.”
The delicate remarks from Ms Pelosi, one of the most astute vote-counters who knew how to balance using pressure with persuasion as a congressional leader, showed just how delicately Democrats needed to approach their negotiations with Mr Manchin. Given that they only had 50 seats in the Senate last Congress, Democrats knew anything that they wanted to pass needed to get his stamp of approval.
As a result, anytime Mr Biden proposed any piece of legislation or put forward any nominee, reporters would swarm the towering Mr Manchin and batter him with questions to determine what would become the law of the land.
As much as he may have irritated Democrats, they realised they had to tolerate Mr Manchin because he had proven to be the only Democrat who could win in West Virginia. In one of his ads when he first ran for Senate in 2010, he shot a proposed cap and trade bill to curb climate change with a rifle and touted his support from the National Rifle Association.
Democrats hoped that pleasing him could convince Mr Manchin to seek re-election in a state where Donald Trump won every county, since they faced a tough map where they would be defending eight swing-state seats. But Mr Manchin remained purse-lipped about his plans.
When I asked him on Thursday whether Gov Andy Beshear’s victory in Kentucky, a neighbouring heavily working-class white Appalachian state similar to West Virginia, would impact his decision, he flashed a grin and said, “Nothing impacts my decision except my family.”
Then, only two hours later, Mr Manchin decided to throw one last middle finger to his party when he announced that he would not seek re-election. The decision all but guarantees that the seat will go to the Republicans, further solidifying their dominance in the ancestrally Democratic Appalachia.
Democrats have an uphill in their defending their 51-seat Senate majority. With Mr Manchin’s exit, they will need to hold seats in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – three states Mr Trump won in 2016 and narrowly lost in 2020 – as well as one in perpetual swing state Nevada.
On top of that, should Sen Kyrsten Sinema, Mr Manchin’s fellow centrist mischief-maker who left the Democratic Party last year to become an independent, run for re-election, Arizona could see a three-way race between her, Democratic Rep Ruben Gallego and failed Republican gubernatorial candidate and election denier Kari Lake.
To boot, Republicans hope to flip two more Senate seats in bright red states – Montana and Ohio, both of which Mr Trump won twice. Like Mr Manchin, the incumbent senators –Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana – have created unique brands that have historically allowed them to seem more relatable to red-state voters.
But polarisation, Mr Biden’s low approval ratings and the decline of split-ticket voting all work against the two men, making Democrats’ job harder. Even if Democrats were to hold all the Senate seats in states Mr Biden won in 2020 and Republicans were to win Senate races in states that Mr Trump won last year, Democrats would still wind up with a three-seat minority.
On top of that, Mr Manchin told friend of the Inside Washington newsletter Julie Tsirkin of NBC News that he is not taking the idea of running for president on a third-party ticket off the table. This comes despite the fact Democrats fear a third-party run could split the run and lead to Mr Trump winning.
Essentially, Mr Manchin is leaving the Senate the same way he entered it: irritating Democrats and imperiling their ability to govern. And, to borrow from Goodfellas, they have little choice to but sit still and take it.