WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Republicans’ best option for unseating Sen. Joe Manchin: Pray that he retires first.
The longtime West Virginia Democrat might be the most endangered member of his party heading into 2024. But Republicans still see the contest against him as treacherous. Manchin is a West Virginia institution who has repeatedly defied the odds in a deep-red state.
A GOP group tied to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell launched a $2 million ad campaign bashing Manchin a year and a half before the election. National Republican leaders, who have no interest in leaving any room for error in their efforts to retake the Senate, have recruited popular Gov. Jim Justice to run for Manchin’s seat. And Justice, who has shared a political network with the senator, has said it’s unlikely Manchin will run for reelection now that he’s in the race. National GOP leaders hope so — or are privately wishing his flirtations with a centrist presidential run turn into a full-fledged campaign.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) said she doesn’t know whether her fellow home-state senator will run for reelection and hasn’t asked him about it. But a presidential bid? “He might — he’s talking about it,” she said.
There’s no sugar-coating the dire position in which Manchin finds himself. After Democrats dominated West Virginia for decades, the state has gone full-blown MAGA in recent years. Former President Donald Trump won it by nearly 40 percentage points in 2020, and there are only 14 Democrats left in West Virginia’s 134-member state legislature. Manchin’s approval rating has plummeted, with 55 percent of voters giving him a thumbs down, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.
But interviews with 18 elected officials, strategists and political observers in West Virginia and Washington, D.C. reveal that Manchin isn’t quite being left for dead yet. Even Justice’s former pollster said it would be unwise to count Manchin out.
“There is a reason that Joe Manchin is basically the last standing Democrat in a state that has had a red tsunami since 2014,” said Mark Blankenship, a West Virginia-based GOP pollster who worked for Justice’s 2020 gubernatorial campaign. “You can’t say that it’s impossible for him to win because he’s won so much.”
Manchin’s GOP colleagues agreed with the sentiment: “You can’t take Joe for granted. He’s a formidable politician,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who appeared as a featured speaker at Justice’s campaign kickoff last month.
The early investment from McConnell’s allies at the group One Nation could save Republicans money next year — if it nudges Manchin toward the exit. Otherwise, the GOP will have to spend millions convincing West Virginia voters to part ways with a man who has not lost an election since the 1990s. Without Manchin on the ballot, many operatives see the state as an automatic flip, and Republicans can redirect their money toward other crucial battleground states.
“It would be nice if we didn’t have to,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) when asked if his party would need to spend money if Manchin retires. “We’ll see how it all plays out.”
Manchin first joined the West Virginia state legislature in 1982 at the age of 35. He served in both chambers before departing to run an unsuccessful primary campaign for governor in 1996. It was the only race he ever lost. He ended up supporting the Republican nominee over the woman who beat him for the Democratic nomination.
Four years later he became West Virginia’s Secretary of State and won the governorship in 2004. In 2010, he made the jump to the Senate, campaigning in a special election seat left open by Democrat Robert Byrd’s death.
Democrats’ best hope of keeping Manchin’s seat in 2024 involves him seeking reelection and a brutally messy Republican primary that leaves the eventual nominee bruised and broke.
Justice, while wealthy and well-liked, does not have the GOP field to himself. Also in the race is Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.), a conservative hardliner who trounced a fellow member in a Republican primary for a House seat in 2022. He is planning on running to Justice’s right with the help of $10 million from the anti-tax Club for Growth super PAC.
Democrats and Republicans alike said Manchin has been able to hold onto elected office in the past in part due to his skills as a retail politician, a key advantage in a state of only 1.7 million people.
“He is the best face-to-face politician I’ve interacted with outside of Bill Clinton,” said Patrick Hickey, a political scientist who previously worked at West Virginia University. “He has that Clinton-esque ability to make everybody feel like he’s your friend and he’s listening to you and he’s concerned about you.”
In 2012, Hickey said he invited Manchin’s GOP opponent, John Raese, to class. “Within a week,” he said, Manchin came into his class to glad-hand students.
Manchin, a moderate, has benefited from distancing himself from national Democratic leaders for years. During his first Senate campaign, he fired at Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill in an ad. His vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 was credited with helping save him in that year’s Senate race. But Manchin’s favorability rating took a nosedive last year after he voted for — and helped write — President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. That’s left many of the few remaining Democrats in West Virginia feeling pessimistic about Manchin’s chances for holding on, regardless of his history.
“I don’t think he can pull it out,” said Deirdre Purdy, chair of the Calhoun County Democratic Party. “My county has so few Democrats in it, I can’t even get a full committee together.”
Manchin is now threatening to vote to repeal Biden’s signature climate legislation with Republicans, arguing that Biden has extended electric vehicle tax credits beyond the law’s specifications.
Given the state’s deep-MAGA hue, some in the GOP think it doesn’t even matter whether Justice or Mooney wins the nomination because either will defeat Manchin. “This state’s now solidly Republican,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Manchin has given few clues about whether he will run for reelection except to say that he won’t make a decision until the end of the year. Amid that vacuum of information, political insiders have desperately tried to read the tea leaves.
When a political operative who has served as an adviser to both Manchin and Justice attended Justice’s campaign launch, it set off speculation among Republicans that Manchin may not run. Larry Puccio, Manchin’s former chief-of-staff and longtime friend, would only go to the event, the thinking went, if he had gotten a signal from the senator that he’s bowing out. A GOP strategist close to Justice said Puccio will not have an official role on Justice’s Senate team, but the governor will “talk to him about the race and campaign.”
Some Democrats cautioned against reading into it, however. According to a person close to Manchin, Puccio “will support Manchin for any office he seeks.”
Puccio did not respond to a request for comment.
Jonathan Kott, a former senior adviser to Manchin, said he believes Manchin is truly undecided on another Senate run. In the 2018 election, Manchin waited until January — days before the filing deadline — to tell his colleagues that he was seeking reelection.
“This is just who he is,” he said. “He just doesn’t focus on the campaign till he has to. He’s busy being a senator for West Virginia and legislating. He’ll sit down with his family, I would guess sometime in like December, and that’s when they’ll make a decision. I’m pretty sure that’s what he did last time.”
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