Shadow Republican: Joe Manchin's Long History of Sabotaging Progressive Candidates in West Virginia

“Many of the newspapers printed his smear sheet," ex-WV Dem. gubernatorial nominee Charlotte Pritt says about Manchin allegedly pushing GOP ads that she was for teaching first graders about condoms

As the liberal punditariat on cable news and Twitter shriek louder for West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to either help Democrats take unilateral action on infrastructure and the fillibuster—or just join the Republican Party —Status Coup has uncovered details of Manchin’s decades-long role as a shadow saboteur helping Republicans in West Virginia defeat progressive candidates.

“He started Democrats for Underwood,” Charlotte Pritt, a progressive candidate who beat Manchin in the 1996 West Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary, told Status Coup about Manchin responding to his defeat by pushing her Republican general election opponent Cecil Underwood.

“I thought it was just the Democrats in West Virginia,” Pritt said, noting that the state Democratic Party—which has unofficially been controlled by Manchin since his Senate victory in 2010—hasn’t supported progressive candidates for a long time.

Specifically, Pritt said, the state party didn’t lift a finger, and in some cases worked against, progressive candidates including 2010 Democratic congressional nominee Virginia Graf; 2012 Democratic congressional nominee Sue Thorn; 2016 Democratic congressional nominee Mike Manypenny; and most recently 2020 Democratic Senatorial nominee Paula Jean Swearengin.

Manchin’s sabotage of progressive candidates was most direct against Pritt, who served in the WV state house and senate in the 1980s and 90s as a strong progressive who was fiercely pro-union and strong on the environment in a state essentially run by the fossil fuel industry and corporate interests.

“I was leading in the polls going into the last weekend and so they brought in these negative ads,” Pritt told Status Coup. The Republican ads, which Pritt alleged Manchin had a hand in, falsely accused her of salacious things like wanting to teach first graders about condoms and that she was for selling pornography to children.

“In the State Senate, Charlotte Pritt proposed teaching first graders about condoms,” the television ad began. “Surprised? You shouldn't be. Senator Pritt also voted to permit the sale of pornographic Videos to children.”

To this day, Pritt is disgusted.

“It was really sick, stupid stuff that hardly anyone, if they were really thinking, would know that that’s just ridiculous,” she said. “Many of the newspapers printed his [Manchin] smear sheet just as it was in the newspaper and op-ed pieces; so he worked with the establishment in these terrible assaults on my character.”

Pritt is certain that Manchin and the WV GOP worked together on the crippling ads against her in the homestretch of the campaign.

“It was really kind of like a petulant spoiled child; I didn’t realize it, but it was the first time that Joe Manchin had ever been defeated—and by a woman. I think it was a great blow. He couldn’t handle it.”

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After leading in the polls going into the final week of the campaign—before the alleged Manchin-engineered ads—Pritt lost to Underwood by 36,648 votes.

After her defeat, Pritt sued Republican National Committee for defamation over the smears. The response, according to Pritt, was the GOP pointing the finger at Manchin, not the ads, as the driving force behind her failed campaign due to Manchin pulling the strings behind Democrats for Underwood.

Ultimately, Pritt said what happened to her in West Virginia has continued 20 years later.

'“I knew exactly what was happening to Bernie in 2016 and 2020 and especially what was happening to Tulsi Gabbard; that’s the kind of treatment I got not being able to get coverage or endorsements by establishment newspapers in the state. Underwood had all the newspapers; just like we see now with progressives up against the establishment.”

Manchin also played a shadow role in helping incumbent West Virginia Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito defeat progressive Democratic nominee Paula Jean Swearengin in 2020.

“Manchin pretty much has control of the party,” Swearengin told Status Coup. “He didn’t even come out in support of me; he was actually behind-the-scenes, and even during the primary, advocating for Shelley Moore Capito. Swearengin pointed to since-deleted tweets from Manchin, who is close friends with Capito, during the general election that spoke positively about working with Senator Capito in the future.

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Manchin’s West Virginia Democratic Party also didn’t lift a finger for Swearengin after she won the Democratic primary for Senate and shifted to the general election, Swearengin said.

The MIA act by state Democrats flies in the face of the national Democratic Party’s 2016 and 2020 megaphone that screamed at progressives to unite with establishment candidates like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden to defeat Donald Trump in the general election.

“The state party pretty much ignored Paula, which is the biggest indicator that Manchin had a hand in Capito winning because they just completely shut her out,” Kaylen Barker, policy adviser for Swearengin’s Senate campaign, told Status Coup. The state party, she added, wouldn’t even let Swearengin speak at events.

Swearengin—the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners who had fought for years for safe mountaintop coal removal—was also shut out from speaking at union halls with close ties to Manchin. This included the United Mine Workers of America [UMWA]; who endorsed Capito based on the 2019 American Miners Act she co-sponsored with Manchin.

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The law helped shore up miners’ pensions while expanding healthcare; but the devil was in the details: to fund miners’ pension and healthcare, taxpayers, not coal companies, would foot the bill.

On Manchin’s role as a shadow Republican campaigning against progressives, Pritt says this is the story of America.

“I think this is very common in the Democratic Party in the sense that it’s the establishment corporatist Democrats who are actually no different than the Republican corporatists.”

Senator Joe Manchin did not respond to Status Coup’s request for comment.

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-Jordan Chariton

-Christian Maitre contributed to this report