Will Senator Manchin be a party switcher after the election?
Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia, is in a tough election fight and is finding it increasingly difficult to support President Obama and the Democratic party - especially when it comes to environmental policy.
Elected in 2010 to fill out the remainder of Robert Byrd's term, Manchin has carefully distanced himself on many issues from the president, including Obama's EPA rules and Obamacare.
Now he is uncertain as to whom he will cast his vote for president in November.
Calling it all but "inevitable that Governor Romney will be that person" on the Republican side, Manchin said it remains to be seen whether his constituents "feel connected" to Romney. Romney's support for the budget plan offered by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., raises the question of whether that proposal "basically attacks entitlement in an unfair way," Manchin said. The state has a high percentage of residents relying on federal benefits.
"I am just waiting for it to play out. I am not jumping in one way or another," Manchin said. "I'm worried about me. I've said it's not a team sport. You need to go out and work for yourself."
Manchin's position echoes the stance he took during his 2010 special election campaign to serve out the term of the late Sen. Robert Byrd. He declined ahead of that election to endorse a second term for Obama or to say if he would vote for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to remain majority leader.
If Manchin in fact votes based on which candidate most of his constituents embrace, he will likely cast his ballot for Romney. Obama lost West Virginia by 13 points in 2008 and remains unpopular there. While Romney's wealth, Mormonism, and views on entitlement reform may not be a perfect fit in a state that remains relatively poor, Protestant, and dependent on federal spending, Obama probably will not take the state.
Many campaign strategists therefore see Manchin's steering clear of Obama as a political necessity. Like Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., whose state Obama is expected to win big, Manchin must convince a sizable percentage of voters to split their ballots in order to prevail.
It is unclear whether Manchin would feel more comfortable running as a Republican or not. Democrats enjoy a 3-1 registration advantage in the Mountaineer State and the former governor has based his appeal on a more populist conservative message than many Republicans would feel comfortable supporting.
But the Democratic party has lurched so far to the left under Obama-Pelosi-Reid that if, as expected, the GOP takes control of the senate, he may be tempted to jump ship if the Republicans can offer him some choice committee assignments (and even better office accommodations).
Former Republican senator from Vermont Jim Jeffords found himself in a similar position in 2001 and was enticed to switch his party affiliation from Republican to independent, although he caucused with the Democrats. His switch handed the Dems control of the senate until the Republicans won the body outright in 2002.
Could Manchin take a similar route? No doubt the GOP will make the effort. But whether he will be tempted to give up the advantages of running as a Democrat in a very Democratic state (at the local and statewide level) remains to be decided.