CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Sen. Joe Manchin met with his West Virginia constituents Thursday about President Obama’s Supreme Court selection, even as a conservative television ad warned that the nominee would threaten two pillars of West Virginia politics: Gun rights and coal.
The Democrat heard differing views from a modest crowd that ranged from gun rights backers clad in black shirts and abortion foes to members of the state’s progressive Citizens Action Group. Though the issue has sparked fierce debate in Congress, Manchin’s town hall drew only around 60 people in this red-state capital.
The meeting came eight days after Obama nominated Merrick Garland, a federal appeals court judge, for the high court vacancy, replacing conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month.
With West Virginia’s solid Republican track record in recent national elections, Manchin faces a more challenging political calculation over Obama’s pick than many other Senate Democrats. Manchin has said he plans to run for re-election in 2018.
“You have a situation where the most unpopular person in the state is the president,” Manchin said. “So if they think it’s all about the president — this is not about the president. Our country’s bigger than the president.”
Underscoring the state’s long-time economic dependence on the fading coal industry, one speaker, veteran John Koch of Charleston, told Manchin: “Oppose this, don’t even meet with the guy, or anybody else that Obama puts up” until there’s a truce in the “war on coal.”
Republicans and Obama opponents often use that term to describe Obama’s efforts to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired plants that contribute to global warming.
Manchin said he will compile a list of West Virginians’ concerns and bring them to Garland. He said his main question for the nominee is whether he looks at regulations established by federal agencies differently than if Congress voted on them.
As a long-time federal judge, Garland is considered a liberal-leaning moderate. If confirmed, he could alter the high court’s 4-4 tie between liberal and conservative justices, and some of his past rulings might pose problems with West Virginia voters.
On the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Garland has often sided with Environmental Protection Agency regulations, including dissenting in a case that overturned industry-opposed rules curbing haze-causing emissions. In 2007, he voted to review a decision that had struck down restrictions on gun rights in the District of Columbia.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says the Senate won’t consider a nominee until the new president takes office next year. Only a small group of Republicans have so far indicated a willingness to hold courtesy meetings with Garland, and fewer still have said they want the traditional Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nominee or a vote by the full Senate.
Democrats including Manchin want a vote, although Manchin hasn’t taken a stance on whether he will support Garland.
West Virginia is one of three states where the conservative Judicial Crisis Network has begun ads aimed at Democratic senators. The group says it is spending $250,000 in West Virginia for a spot on television, radio and online.
The announcer does not mention Garland by name but says Obama wants to appoint a justice who “would weaken the right to bear arms, hurt the coal industry and trample the Constitution.”
Garland is currently chief judge of the federal appeals court in Washington and a former federal prosecutor.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.