9 min read

Wake Up To Politics - August 4, 2022

Wake Up To Politics: Joe Manchin’s go-to interviewer
Wake Up To Politics - August 4, 2022

by Gabe Fleisher

Good morning! It’s Thursday, August 4, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 96 days away. Election Day 2024 is 834 days away.

How to understand Joe Manchin, through the eyes of his go-to interviewer

For the past 18 months, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has been at the center of the negotiations over President Biden’s economic agenda.

And when Manchin wants to make news — or explain his ever-evolving thinking — on those negotiations, he always calls up the same person: Hoppy Kercheval, the dean of West Virginia radio broadcasters.

When Manchin pulled the plug on Biden’s “Build Back Better” package late last year, he gave an interview to Kercheval. When the latest talks hit another hurdle in July, Manchin explained what happened to Kercheval.

And then when the negotiations suddenly yielded a compromise package one week later, there he was again on “Metronews Talkline,” Kercheval’s daily call-in show. (And again earlier this week as he continues to promote the new package.)

Along the way, Manchin has cemented his status as America’s most powerful legislator. Meanwhile, Kercheval has become known as a sought-after “Manchin whisperer” or even — in the words of one Washington Post reporter — “arguably the most important media figure in America right now.”

Hoppy Kercheval is the dean of West Virginia broadcasters and Joe Manchin’s go-to interviewer. (Courtesy of Hoppy Kercheval)

“It’s really peculiar,” Kercheval said of his recurring role in Washington’s legislative saga in a recent interview with Wake Up To Politics. “I just happen to be here at this weird place in history,” as a leading local broadcaster at the same time as his state’s senator has emerged as the hinge vote in a 50-50 Senate.

But it’s no coincidence that Manchin calls on Kercheval: the relationship between senator and journalist goes back 40 years, to when Kercheval was beginning his career in the West Virginia press corps and Manchin was running for a seat in the state House of Delegates.  

“West Virginia is a small state. So everybody knows everybody,” he said. “So I just have always covered him because he’s always been in the news, for four decades or more.”

Decoding Manchin’s every thought and action has become something of a Washington cottage industry over the past year, as lobby shops, congressional offices, and newsrooms have tried to figure out the inscrutable senator’s next move.

But Kercheval said he thinks Manchin “has been fairly consistent all along” in the negotiations, if Democrats had only listened to what he was saying from the beginning. In fact, Kercheval added, “I don’t think he’s changed much” in his 40 years in politics.

The longtime radio host explained that the senator has always been best viewed as a member of “the party of Joe Manchin,” a “populist at heart” who has “never been out there heavily flying the Democratic flag or whatever the party talking points are.”

Kercheval (left) moderating a 2018 Senate debate between Manchin and GOP candidate Patrick Morissey. (Screengrab)

Manchin’s months of putting himself at the center of the talks with Democratic leaders, and always coming back to the table after every flare-up, should come as no surprise, Kercheval said.

“That’s the way Manchin has always been: to try to get a deal, to try to bring disparate parties around the table, and to try to hammer out an agreement,” the radio host explained. “That’s the way he’s always done business.”

Kercheval recounted one such story, of the time in 2005 when the state’s two football powerhouses — West Virginia University and Marshall University — couldn’t agree on a contract to play against each other.

Manchin, then serving as governor, “inserted himself and got the athletic directors of both schools and said, ‘We’re going to sit here until we work out a deal to play.’ And they did.”

But Kercheval, who has spent many hours speaking to Manchin over the decades, acknowledged that he can sometimes be a mysterious person to talk to. “I know Manchin to sometimes think as he talks,” the journalist explained. “He may be thinking out loud. And so when he’s riffing about something, maybe that’s not necessarily where he is, hard and fast, it’s him riffing about possibilities or concerns. And maybe that’s what gets things jumbled up sometimes.”

Put in those terms, Washington — and the country — has basically been watching a classic Manchin riff spill out for the past year-and-a-half, as the fate of an entire party’s political agenda has hung on what comes out of his mouth next.

As for himself, Kercheval denies that he’s a “Manchin whisperer.” The journalist said his relationship with Manchin is more akin to a “vessel,” who can give Manchin a forum to air his views and get them before a statewide audience.  

“I’ve known him for years. I think he trusts me,” Kercheval explained. “His political acumen is very strong, like ‘let me talk to West Virginians. Here’s a way to do it, and here’s a convenient way to do it, and it’ll be tough but fair, but I know it will be fair.’” (Manchin’s office did not respond to repeated requests to comment on his relationship with Kercheval.)

Kercheval said the two have occasionally had off-the-record conversations between their hundreds of radio interviews, but “it’s not like we’re hanging out or exchanging Christmas cards or anything.” And he wanted to make clear: He’s no Manchin sycophant or soft interviewer. (Indeed, in their interviews, Kercheval will frequently cut Manchin off or confront him with criticisms from both sides of the aisle.)

But Kercheval did offer one tip to Manchin’s ever-rotating cast of negotiating partners: “Just lock the door and order pizza and beer. Just keep negotiating. Just keep going at it... because he wants to reach a compromise. He wants to find a way to get along.”

Joe Manchin has been at the center of Washington’s legislative saga for the past 18 months. (Nathan Posner / Wake Up To Politics)

Democrats may be on their way to passing a reconciliation package, but Manchin’s time in the spotlight is unlikely to end. He will remain a key vote throughout the Biden era; then, in 2024, his Senate seat will likely be one of the most competitive in the country once again.

Kercheval said that “there are a lot of Republicans in West Virginia who are champing at the bit to run against him,” especially in light of his new deal with Biden, which has been poorly received in his home state.

But throughout his career, as West Virginia has swerved to the right, Manchin has always hung on. “He’s an excellent retail politician,” Kercheval explained. “He’s really good on the stump. He’s really good with people one-on-one... And it would be a mistake to underestimate his ability to win again, if he decides to run.”

If Manchin opts to retire, Kercheval said bluntly that there is no other Democrat who could win statewide, making the senator something of a political unicorn.

Could Manchin take those famed retail politicking skills to the next level? The West Virginia senator has recently refused to endorse Biden for re-election in 2024, and there has been some Beltway fantasies about Manchin waging his own centrist campaign for the White House, perhaps on a third-party line. (He is a card-carrying member of the “party of Joe Manchin,” after all.)

Kercheval said it is possible to see him wanting the gig. “I mean, he likes being in the middle of it,” the broadcaster said. “He likes being in the middle of stuff.”

No matter what Manchin does in the next two years — and beyond — it’s a sure bet that Kercheval will be right there covering him, only a phone call away.

More news you should know

Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) was killed in a car crash on Wednesday. Walorski, 58, was traveling with two aides in her district when a vehicle driving in the opposite direction veered into their lane and collided with them head-on. The staffers — district director Zachery Potts, 27, and communications director Emma Thompson, 28 — were also killed, as was the driver of the other car.  

“Jackie was a dear friend, a trusted adviser, and the embodiment of integrity,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said in a statement, among the outpouring of shocked messages from lawmakers in both parties. “Everything Jackie did was to serve others,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) wrote.

A tragic car crash took the lives of Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) and two staffers. (Walorski campaign)

The Senate voted to approve a treaty adding Finland and Sweden. The vote was 95-1-1: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) was the lone “nay” vote, while Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) abstained by voting “present.” The resolution must now be approved by President Biden, who has already signaled his support.

All 30 NATO member states must ratify the treaty before Finland and Sweden can join the alliance. The potential addition would mark a major remaking of the European security landscape, largely brought about by the Russian war in Ukraine.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) may force changes to the Democratic climate, health, and tax bill. According to Politico, Sinema wants to cut a provision that seeks to tighten the “carried interest loophole,” which allows hedge fund managers and private equity executives to pay lower tax rates on the income they earn from their investments.

Sinema is also reportedly aiming to add roughly $5 billion to the package to boost drought resiliency. Elements of the legislation could also be axed by the Senate parliamentarian if she decides they do not comply with the chamber’s reconciliation rules, which require all provisions to have a direct impact on government spending or revenue. The Senate may stay in session over the weekend to continue working on the package.

Democrats must go through Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) before advancing their reconciliation package. (Gage Skidmore)

Some more headlines to know:

What’s going on in Washington today

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch it.

President Joe Biden remains in Covid isolation, two weeks after testing positive for the first time and five days after testing positive again.

He will receive his daily intelligence briefing virtually (10:45 am) and virtually host a roundtable (1:45 pm) with business and labor leaders on the Inflation Reduction Act, the Democratic climate, health, and tax proposal.

Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Boston, Massachusetts (9:25 am). While there, she will virtually receive her daily intelligence briefing (10:45 am) and hold a roundtable on abortion with Massachusetts state legislators and local leaders (12:50 pm).

Harris will then travel to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts (2:35 pm), where she will headline a Democratic National Committee fundraiser (6:15 pm). After that, she will return to Washington (7:30 pm).

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will visit Civic Works Urban Lot in Baltimore, Maryland and assist AmeriCorps participants in building a “green space to further improve the city’s climate resiliency infrastructure” (10:30 am).

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold her daily press briefing (2:45 pm).

The Senate will vote on a resolution authored by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) today. (Gage Skidmore)

The Senate will convene (12 pm) and begin consideration of a resolution by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) that would overturn a Biden administration environmental regulation.

The regulation reverses a Trump-era rule and requires federal agencies to evaluate all major infrastructure projects for their effect on climate change. The Congressional Review Act of 1996 gives Congress the power to overturn Executive Branch regulations within 60 days of their publication.

This afternoon, the Senate will vote on Sullivan’s resolution, followed by a vote to confirm Roopali Desai as a U.S. Circuit Judge for the Ninth Circuit. Desai is a top Arizona election lawyer who has represented Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and defended the validity of the state’s 2020 vote against pro-Trump legal challenges.

If confirmed, Desai would be the 76th Biden judicial nominee to join the federal bench; Biden has had his judicial picks confirmed at a faster clip than any president since John F. Kennedy.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold an oversight hearing with FBI director Christopher Wray (10 am). The Senate Banking Committee will hold a hearing on the economic costs of climate change (10 am).

The House is on recess until September 13.

The Supreme Court is on recess until October.

That’s it for today. If you enjoy Wake Up To Politics, it’s always appreciated if you donate to support the newsletter or buy some merch. Or if you tell your friends and family to sign up at wakeuptopolitics.com.

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.

Thanks for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe