As Sen. Joe Manchin struggled for several months over the next step he would take politically, President Joe Biden’s top advisers privately tried to persuade him to run for another term in the Senate.
Multiple West Wing aides, including senior counselor Steve Ricchetti, and some outside Biden allies talked with the West Virginia Democrat, according to two White House officials and another adviser who were granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the conversations. Their pitch to Manchin was that, while a reelection bid in a deep-red state would be difficult, he had a path to victory.
They failed to convince him to run.
On Thursday, the senator didn’t just announce that he would not campaign for a third term but also openly toyed with the idea of launching a third-party presidential bid, saying he would be “traveling the country and speaking out, to see if there is an interest in creating a movement to mobilize the middle, and bring Americans together.”
The pronouncement was a blow for Senate Democrats, whose majority is already extremely narrow. A White House official said the Biden team’s attempts to get Manchin to run again were done with an eye on keeping control of the Senate given that reality.
At the same time, the president’s team is facing an already tricky path to reelection itself and Manchin has not foreclosed the possibility of running for the White House.
Manchin is just the latest politician to join the list of those either running for president as an independent or third-party candidate, or considering it. Though new polling suggests that Robert F. Kennedy Jr would largely hurt former President Donald Trump, there has been widespread fear across the Democratic Party that more liberal candidates such as Cornel West and Jill Stein could siphon votes away from Biden. Several Democrats, including people close to the president, concede that Manchin could pull away some moderate and center-left votes from Biden, too.
“Any third-party, quote-un-quote unity ticket, a ticket that runs to the middle, will cut into the Biden coalition,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of the liberal group MoveOn. “A lot of the folks that turned out for Joe Biden and against former President Donald Trump, a good portion of those could be persuaded to vote for a Joe Manchin ticket.”
Manchin’s political future has been the topic of intense interest over the past few years as he’s increasingly distanced himself from Biden and his own party. In July, the senator traveled to the early primary state of New Hampshire for an event with No Labels, a centrist organization that has floated a plan to launch a third-party presidential ticket. He also spoke on a call with the group.
The No Labels project, which has won ballot access in a number of states, has sparked backlash among Democrats, who fear it could spoil Biden’s chances for reelection. The Biden team’s posture has, so far, been to largely ignore the organization. Privately, they’ve expressed concerns that a fractured field would largely benefit Trump, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.
“In general, third-party candidates draw from the president,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster for Biden’s campaign in 2020. But, she explained that when it comes to Manchin, the extent to which he’ll impact Biden depends on “how he runs” and whether he can get onto the ballot.
For now, the Biden campaign has outsourced efforts to undermine No Labels to allied Democrats under the assumption that taking on the group itself could give it oxygen, said one person familiar with its thinking.
The White House and campaign aides aren’t panicking about Manchin either. Some on Biden’s team point to a nonprofit group Manchin recently launched with his daughter, Americans Together, and believe the senator may travel under its banner and not enter the 2024 race.
There is a prevailing sentiment that while Manchin may be fond of the spotlight, he would not risk something that could tarnish his legacy, such as helping Trump return to office.
But there are concerns among some in Biden world who think Manchin is clearly considering a presidential run and could further complicate an already highly unusual election, in which all of the independent candidates combined could win double-digit support.
Biden praised Manchin in a statement Thursday, saying that “Joe and I have worked together to get things done for hardworking families.” He cited their efforts collaborating on the bipartisan infrastructure law, gun control legislation, and Inflation Reduction Act.
Manchin told Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in person ahead of his announcement that he was not running for reelection, according to Manchin spokesperson Sam Runyon. He also called to tell Ricchetti the news. He has not spoken to Biden “but appreciated the kind statement” from him, said Runyon.
Manchin’s departure from the Senate is an exceedingly difficult blow for Democrats, who were facing a difficult cycle already. While the Biden White House had its share of disagreements with the senator, there was a universal recognition that he was the rare — perhaps only — Democrat who could survive in a statewide race in West Virginia.
Jon Kott, a former Manchin adviser, said he believes that Manchin would have “run circles” around his Republican opponent had he decided to run for reelection.
Now, however, questions around Manchin turn to whether he will make a presidential run. Contrary to what some Democrats think, people close to the senator believe it’s not too late for him to get into the race and that ballot access wouldn’t be a problem.
But some Democrats argue that Manchin would face trouble getting on the ballot, though a No Labels ticket could help with that.
No Labels did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in a statement on Thursday, the group said that Manchin is a “a tireless voice for America’s commonsense majority and a longtime ally of the No Labels movement,” adding that it will decide by early next year on whether to put a ticket forward.
Matt Bennett, co-founder of the center-left group Third Way, has been actively involved in the pushback against No Labels. But he said he is not concerned about Manchin running for president, in part due to press reports that No Labels is likely to put a Republican on the top of their ticket.
“I am not alarmed because he’s not going to run on the No Labels ticket in the No. 2 slot. They’ve said they want a Republican on the top and he’s nobody’s No. 2,” he said. “And the fact that he’s gonna use his national platform and his voice while he has it, I think makes sense. I don’t think there’s any harm in doing that.”
Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.
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