What Will Become of Joe Manchin?
When last I wrote about West Virginia’s Democrat senator-for-life, Joe Manchin, he had the appearance of a dead skunk lying by the side of the road after being hit by a truck. The look and smell resulted from one of the worst miscalculations of his political career.
By virtue of being the swing vote in the 50-50 Senate, Manchin was able to block much of President Joe Biden’s leftist agenda during his first year and a half in office. This paid political dividends in bold red West Virginia, where Manchin’s approval rating climbed to 57%. But the Senator loves to be seen as a compromiser and deal-maker, especially if he gets something in the bargain. Since the 2022 midterm elections were approaching, meaning that the future composition of the Senate might deprive Joe of his position of power, his time to make a deal was running out.
Enter the truck in my analogy: the Inflation Reduction Act, formerly known as the Green New Deal. A key want for Manchin was permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline that would transport natural gas from the Mountain State to the east coast. Completion of the pipeline had been held up for years by members of his own party.
Manchin reasoned that if he could get the pipeline operational, it would be a big win for the folks back home. That, plus his high approval rating, would make him a shoo-in for re-election in 2024. So, in return for his vote, Joe made a deal with Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer to get the pipeline approved along with a few other goodies.
Unfortunately for Manchin, other Democrats were not on board with the compromise. Many were unhappy that Joe had interfered with other pieces of legislation, and they were looking for payback. Thus, the Inflation Reduction Act passed both the Democrat-led House and the Senate, but the permitting deal did not.
Democrat politicians were not the only unhappy people Manchin had to deal with. Republicans were outraged that Manchin had caved after it seemed he was solidly on their side. Back home, where fossil fuels employ a large segment of the population, voters were unhappy that Joe had threatened their livelihoods. Like the dead skunk mentioned above, Joe’s approval plummeted to 26%.
One could reasonably assume Manchin’s political career was over. But, as football analyst Lee Corso likes to say, “Not so fast!”
Recognizing his mistake, Manchin has since been engaged in a furious public relations offensive aimed primarily at West Virginia voters. Joe has taken several positions that sound downright MAGA conservative. For example, in a September interview on immigration, Manchin claimed, “But we need a wall and a lot more ...”
Later, in February, Manchin and Senator Ted Cruz launched the Gas Stove Protection and Freedom Act. This would prohibit the government from using federal funds to ban new or existing gas stoves.
And just a few days ago, Manchin criticized Democrats for refusing to negotiate responsible spending reforms. Really? The man who helped Democrats break the bank is attacking them on spending reforms?
It gets better. Joe recently declined to identify as a Democrat. Last Sunday, he refused to endorse Joe Biden for president in 2024. He has also been interviewed on CNN and Fox News about future plans, including running for president.
Since Manchin is a career politician, the temptation to stay in office must be high. And from all the posturing, it does not sound as though he is ready to go quietly into the night. So what are his options? He could try to hold his Senate seat, run for President, or consider a run for governor of West Virginia.
The most unlikely scenario is Manchin runs for president. As a moderate blue senator from a red state, he has no natural constituency. The likelihood of him winning either party's nomination is about the same as holding the Winter Olympics in the Sahara desert. This is likely just a tease to increase his visibility back home.
Joe could try to defend his Senate seat, but there are problems. One of them is West Virginia Republican Governor Jim Justice. Justice, who is more popular than Manchin and wealthy enough to self-fund his campaign, may jump into the race. In a recent poll of registered voters, Justice received 52% of the vote versus 42% for Manchin, with 5% undecided.
Manchin’s other problem is the perception that he is out of step with West Virginia voters. In 2016 he endorsed Hillary Clinton for president despite her dislike of coal and other fossil fuels and her "deplorables" commentary about Trump voters. Two years later, Manchin nearly paid the price for that endorsement, barely winning re-election in a three-way race with 49.6% of the vote. Today, after voting for Biden’s green energy plan, Joe is in a similar position.
Okay, what if Manchin switches parties? Could he keep his Senate seat as a Republican? Despite various Republicans and Fox News personalities salivating over the thought, this is unlikely.
If Joe were to switch parties, he would have had ample opportunity to do it by now. Remember that he has been a pro-union Democrat all his life, which is something he sees as a badge of honor. So I doubt Joe wants to be seen as a traitor by his union friends. Even if he switched parties, there is a good chance Justice would beat him in a primary.
This brings us to option three: a run for governor. There are several advantages. First, although Joe held the office from 2005 to 2010, term limits do not affect him. However, Justice, the sitting governor, is term-limited, making the competition less formidable. And if Joe wins, he could serve for another four to eight years. So if Justice does decide to run for the Senate, Manchin may go this route.
One thing that is not usually considered is how campaign contributions may factor into Manchin’s decision-making. Remember: Joe did not agree to vote for the Inflation Reduction Act until he met with billionaire Bill Gates. I’m not saying there was a quid pro quo, but being a friend of Bill can potentially get you a lot of campaign cash.
On the other hand, Manchin has been hoarding campaign contributions for years. Even during the close election of 2018, he seemed reluctant to spend much of it. If he views that stash as a retirement plan, he may not want to risk it in a bruising campaign against a well funded opponent.
Will Manchin rise from the ashes and remain a political force at some level? Will he take on a fight he could lose? Will he surprise us and retire? We shall see.
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Image: Third Way Think Tank via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.