[This piece was originally published in the Charleston Gazette in May, 2022]
In the final weeks of the Republican primary, Joe Manchin weighed in with an endorsement. You might think it odd that the state’s leading Democrat would endorse in a GOP primary, and perhaps even odder that a Republican officeholder would want an endorsement from a Democrat around here. But David McKinley wanted the endorsement, and Manchin gave it.
Ten days later, McKinley was obliterated by the Republican electorate that had given him six terms in Congress, going down 36-54 to Alex Mooney. There’s no mystery left for those two Republicans. McKinley goes into retirement and Mooney goes back to Congress, but the more pressing question is (as it always seems to be): where does this result leave Joe Manchin?
Manchin has dominated this Congress, first by blessing the American Rescue Plan, then by insisting on the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill, and finally, by killing President Biden’s Build Back Better bill. Manchin is currently pressing for a “bipartisan energy bill,” but as the 117th Congress winds down, the chances he will remain the 50th vote for everything in a new Congress are slim. So where can he go from here and what does the unusual McKinley endorsement (and its spectacular failure) tell us?
In 2024 there will be three choices for Manchin. Run for reelection as a Democrat, retire from the Senate, or run for reelection to the Senate as a Republican. Each possibility has something to recommend it, but the deeper we go into 2022, the more clear it becomes that he will not run at all, and this recent primary is a huge breadcrumb leading toward that outcome.
Many have noted Manchin’s fondness for attention over the past eighteen months and his willingness to keep himself up in the air as a way of soliciting courtship. Manchin chafed heavily in the minority caucus of a do-nothing Senate, but has come alive as a deal-maker in the current thinnest-possible majority. Above all though, Manchin hates to lose. He has not lost a race since 1996, an event that angered him so much he subverted his own party’s nominee out of pique in the aftermath. He certainly does not want to lose his last race.
Joe won his first full Senate term by 24 points and over 150,000 votes in 2012 – a margin similar to his two gubernatorial landslides. But in 2018, even with kid-glove treatment from Donald Trump, his margin shrank to just 3 points, and fewer than 20,000 votes. That is a precipitous trajectory.
If Manchin planned to be a Republican in West Virginia, David McKinley would be his base-model. McKinley and Manchin share similar views on taxes, regulation of the energy sector, and the importance of the deficit. Neither is bombastic or demonstrative like Mooney or Trump. McKinley liked to govern and record accomplishments, as he saw them, on behalf of his constituents, just as Joe does, and McKinley counted the bi-partisan infrastructure plan as an example of that. But it ended up costing him his seat.
Trump of course despises the bi-partisan infrastructure plan since it stands for Biden doing what Trump promised, but failed, to do. Trump has made it a point to oppose Republicans who supported it and heavily endorsed Mooney. Mooney had little going for him besides Trump’s endorsement. He’s not an especially hard worker or a great political talent and he was recently in some difficulty about spending campaign funds on himself, but that is not frowned on at Mar-a-Lago.
If the McKinley-Mooney district belongs to Trump, there is no path for Joe Manchin on the Republican side. The 2024 GOP Senate candidate will be a full-throated MAGA man – someone who proclaims that the 2020 election was stolen and that Trump should already be President. No one who voted to impeach Trump, as Manchin did, need apply.
What about simply running as a Democrat, as he’s always done? That door appears to be closing faster by the day as well. It is an article of faith among political commentators that “only Joe Manchin could possibly hold a WV Senate seat for the Democrats,” but it is rapidly becoming clear that he can’t.
The headwinds would be hurricane-force. West Virginia will be the GOP’s number one target (to the extent it’s not considered in the bag). Trump will be red-hot to help his candidate in West Virginia, whether it’s Mooney, or someone even more vociferously in his camp. Polarization will be, if anything, even higher than it is now.
Manchin loves to campaign and he pays attention to the numbers. His polling firm, Global Strategies, will give him the lay of the land, and that will include the fact that to even begin to put together a Manchin map for 2024, he would need nearly every Democrat left in West Virginia. But there is good reason to think he’s lost many more than he can spare.
While liberals are not what people picture when they think of a West Virginia voter, they do exist. 21% of the 2018 electorate in the state identified that way and Manchin won that group by 66 points. If Build Back Better dies by his hand, and Roe v. Wade is overruled by a majority including two Trump Justices that Manchin supported (Kavanaugh and Gorsuch) some liberal West Virginians will stay home, or at least withhold their vote from Joe. Fifty-four percent of West Virginians wanted Roe left alone in 2018 and those voters broke 2-1 for Manchin. Any erosion there would be very harmful for him as well.
Manchin would remain a big favorite in a Democratic primary, but his sky-high national profile will be an advantage to a progressive challenger who will easily fundraise off progressive donors nationwide who are deeply angry at how Manchin has kneecapped the Biden Administration. That money will be spent driving his negatives with Democrats as high as they can go – think video of his yacht in DC and the Maserati he drives, juxtaposed with West Virginia poverty exacerbated by the end of the expanded child tax credit.
West Virginia’s black population is not large, but there are still tens of thousands of black voters in West Virginia and with Manchin having killed the push to protect voting rights, he should expect to lose votes there, as well as among non-black progressives for whom voting rights is a critical issue.
Manchin’s natural inclination would be to try to replace those voters with more conservative West Virginians who will respond to his bipartisan infrastructure accomplishments and his stances on old-school conservative values like fiscal responsibility, but Tuesday’s results are the writing on the wall for that strategy. If Republicans can’t be persuaded to vote for a Republican on those grounds, a Democrat won’t have a chance.
Assuming Manchin does not come home to his party on Build Back Better, voting rights, and Roe (a very safe assumption at this point), he’ll have lost many more votes on his left side than he could ever hope to pick up on his right. He’s building a profile that might win a Senate seat in a swing state, but West Virginia is not going to be one. The winning coalition in West Virginia will start at one edge or the other, and Manchin has given away the edge he had.
McKinley lost almost twenty points, to a carpetbagger, in what is mostly his old district. Manchin doesn’t want to go out like that. If he doesn’t come back to his own party in really stunning fashion soon, you can expect that Joe Manchin will be driving his Maserati to K street, instead of the Capitol, come 2025.