Joe Manchin is among the last of a dying breed — a Democratic senator representing a deep red state. He’s managed to hang on time and time again in West Virginia by bucking his party on key votes and building a reputation as a centrist.
But Republicans are already betting that in this era of extreme partisanship, and with West Virginia trending further and further to the right, voters will want someone who’s more aligned with the state’s trajectory. Candidates are already eyeing a chance to topple him, setting up the Senate contest there as one of the premiere races of the 2024 cycle.
The race is making an impact up and down the ballot in the Mountain State. Days after the midterm election, Rep. Alex Mooney announced his bid for Senate. Soon after, Moore Capito, a state legislator and son of Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, announced his bid for governor, while state treasurer Riley Moore announced his run for the seat Mooney would vacate after this upcoming term.
“The dominoes are really starting to move as soon as Congressman Mooney announced,” Moore said. “I think there’s an absolute laser focus in this state, in terms of the Republican Party in defeating Joe Manchin and 2024. This will take a lot of resources. Joe Manchin certainly is formidable; he won in 2018. And if you’re going to need those types of resources and focus, you better get going early.”
Still, several major decisions await. Chief among them is whether GOP Gov. Jim Justice, who has signaled “serious” interest in running for Senate, decides to get in, as well as if Manchin himself ultimately decides to run for re-election, which he has not yet publicly committed to doing.
“I’m not in a hurry. I don’t have to be in a hurry,” Manchin told a local radio outlet earlier this month when asked about his potential re-election. “The bottom line is I only care about one thing and that’s the success of my state and people having opportunities in my state.”
Whether he runs as a Democrat is in question, too. After Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., announced her departure from the Democratic Party last week, Manchin seemed to leave the door open to a party switch during a brief exchange with NBC News.
“I don’t know how you get more independent than I am,” Manchin said, touting his record and public disputes with Democrats on key issues in recent years. “I’ve always looked at all those things, but I have no intention of doing anything right now. And whether I do something later, I can’t tell you what the future is going to bring.”
The state is a top target on the 2024 map as an opportunity for Republicans to flip a Democratic-controlled seat in hopes of recapturing the Senate. After all, Donald Trump beat Joe Biden by 39 points in West Virginia in the 2020 presidential election, and it’s been trending more and more to the right in recent cycles.
Yet Manchin has survived time and time again in statewide bids, including in 2018, when Trump visited the state repeatedly to campaign against him.
Republicans are torn over whether Manchin stands any chance of re-election.
“No, there’s no way,” Conrad Lucas, former chair of the West Virginia GOP, said about whether Manchin can survive another contest. He added that over the years, he’s been more nuanced in his comments about Manchin’s re-election prospects because he “always seemed to find a way,” but he was certain of his defeat in 2024.
Others aren’t so sure.
“If he doesn’t run, it’s a free seat for us,” one national Republican strategist said, noting how expensive the race will get if Manchin does run. “He’s also very difficult to beat. I think the stars have aligned for him to lose. But we can’t f— it up, either.”
As Moore said, should Manchin be on the ballot in a cycle that also features a gubernatorial race, 2024 will go down as “probably the most expensive election in West Virginia state history.”
What could make the race even more expensive is the entrance of Justice, the two-term governor who recently said he is “seriously considering” a Senate bid. Justice, a coal magnate who owns the famous Greenbrier resort and is the wealthiest person in the state, would be able to enter the race on his own terms with his ability to self-fund. His candidacy is attractive to some Republicans who appreciate his statewide popularity and deep pockets, though he would likely face bruising attacks in a primary over running — and winning — as a Democrat in his 2016 race, as well as for his handling of the Covid pandemic.
As one national Republican operative said of Justice: “It’s like he’s the whole state’s rich granddad.”
Lucas said Justice is someone who would not be bluffing about such intentions to run.
“He’s not someone who is putting it out there at all with no intention,” he said. “Justice is wildly popular. Wildly. So he’d be highly formidable.”
Others, including Attorney General Patrick Morrissey, who lost to Manchin in 2018, and Secretary of State Mac Warner, may also decide to jump into the race. Though for now, Mooney is staking out early ground. Mooney may get a boost from a Trump endorsement last cycle when he ran to unseat Rep. David McKinley, R-W.V., after their districts were consolidated.
“The reason I wanted to just go ahead and make it clear I was running” was “so as other people make their decisions, they can, they can see there’s at least one other person running at this time,” Mooney said, adding he would tout his conservative record as a member of the House Freedom Caucus in his campaign.
Representatives for Justice did not respond to requests for comment.
Mike Pushkin, the West Virginia Democratic Party chairman, said that his party, and Manchin specifically, could benefit from what is likely to be a bruising GOP primary contest.
“If he chooses to run for re-election, he’s going to be a very strong candidate, like he’s always been in West Virginia,” he said. “And West Virginia has obviously trended very far to the Republican side the past few election cycles. Yet, Senator Manchin has still been able to win statewide races here.”
Elgine McArdle, the West Virginia GOP chairwoman, said the 2024 cycle will be “much bigger on a national scale” with how much attention is likely to focus on the Manchin race.
“We now hold 31 out of 34 state Senate seats and we hold 88 out of 100 delegate seats. We have every Board of Public Works seat. And then both congressional seats. The only seat that we don’t have is Manchin’s,” she said. “It’s clear that he needs to go. He not only has a target on his back in West Virginia, he has a target on his back nationally.”