West Virginia’s senior senator continues to flirt with the concept of leaving Congress to run for governor, leaving a race frozen and onlookers scratching their heads.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., won reelection and a six-year term in November. By January, he began teasing the notion of challenging incumbent Gov. Jim Justice in 2020. He elucidated those remarks this week in a radio interview with WV MetroNews.
“By this fall, with all of my family involved, I should be able to make a decision,” he said.
State Democrats, meanwhile, can’t make heads or tails of Manchin’s waffling. Some say he’s just saving space for a surrogate candidate; some take him at his word that he’s weighing a run in earnest; most all agree that he’s boxed out any newcomers to race, for fear of going toe-to-toe with one of the most formidable political brands in West Virginia.
“[Manchin] is probably the strongest political identity in the state, so do you really want to take that on?” said Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton.
Worry over choking up the race was significant enough that state Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore approached Manchin in person this week to tell him he needs to make up his mind by the start of the summer, not this fall.
“I just said, ‘Senator, with all due respect, I think if you’re going to get into this race, or if you’re not going to get into this race, you need to let us know so we can be out there working with other candidates,’ ” she said.
“He didn’t give me an answer one way or another.”
A scent of bad blood looms over the potential for a Manchin gubernatorial bid.
Justice won office in 2016 as a Democrat via a campaign staffed with aides with close Manchin ties. Justice tapped Gayle Manchin, the Senator’s wife, as his Secretary of Education and the Arts.
The relationship soured.
In 2017, Justice switched his party affiliation over to the GOP. He proceeded to fire Gayle Manchin in public fashion, endorse Joe Manchin’s senatorial challenger in 2018, heckle him in an official news release earlier this year, and publicly blame him in part for the poor condition of the state’s secondary roads.
“Make no mistake, Joe Manchin does not care for Jim Justice at all,” Sponaugle said.
Through a spokeswoman, Manchin declined to comment. In a 2018 interview, Manchin called supporting Justice the biggest “mistake” of his political career. He later asked that the quote to be walked back to “disappointment.”
As far as Manchin reworking his political future on a grudge, not everybody buys it.
“Insulting? Not handled the best way? Sure, but he’s not sitting up nights, thinking about, ‘Oooh, that has to be responded to,’ ” said Chris Regan, the former vice chairman of the state Democratic Party. “You’d never survive as long as he has if something of that magnitude sent you to the point where you’re going to change what you’re doing.”
In Regan’s eyes, Manchin is scouting for a suitable candidate to clinch the primary ticket. He said Manchin is used to winning elections in landslides. After eking out a three-point victory in a viscous campaign against Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, it just doesn’t make sense that he’d challenge an incumbent who Forbes estimates to be a billionaire.
He said Manchin took a similar tack in 2016, only to bow out to make room for Justice.
“We’ve seen this movie before — he’s out there looking for, who does he want to get behind,” Regan said.
To Mike Plante, a Democratic consultant who worked on a super PAC bolstering Manchin’s 2018 reelection bid, the surrogate theory doesn’t make any sense. If Manchin had somebody, that somebody would have announced — why wait?
If there’s any onlooker in the state immune to the will-he-or-won’t-he speculation around Manchin, it’s another Democrat announced to run in the primary, Stephen Smith.
With a campaign in full swing, Smith, formerly a community organizer, has been touring the state seeking to build grassroots momentum. He said he’s going to keep doing what he’s doing, no matter the drama going on in Charleston.
“The politics of the good ol’ boys is this politics of soap opera and vendetta,” he said. “To us, most the people in the state, politics is about whether we can drive the roads of the state without busting a tire. Whether there’s enough treatment beds.”
Can he win?
Manchin hasn’t lost an election since his 1996 gubernatorial primary against Charlotte Pritt. (Plante ran the campaign.)
Since then, West Virginia has swung rapidly to the political right, as seen in its deep support for President Donald Trump, who will be on top of the 2020 ticket.
“In my opinion, to win that race, he would have to beat not only Jim Justice in a general, but the President of the United States, and that’s a tall order,” said Bill Bissett, president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, whose PAC endorsed Manchin in 2018.
Manchin has prevailed in elections with GOP presidential candidates carrying the state. The victors of 2012? Manchin and Mitt Romney. In 2008? Manchin (then governor) and John McCain. In 2004? Manchin and George W. Bush.
However, looking at 2018 results, West Virginia University professor of political science Scott Crichlow detects weakness. In 2012, Manchin brought in 73 percent of the vote in Mingo County, 75 percent in Logan County, and about 60 percent in Raleigh County. In 2018, he lost all three.
“It could be that considering the way in which partisan politics in West Virginia is moving, that the name Joe Manchin doesn’t mean what it used to,” he said. “His traditional base in the South really collapsed compared to his previous elections.”
That said, clinching a primary is no guarantee for Justice. Woody Thrasher, his former commerce secretary, is challenging him in a primary, along with former delegate Mike Folk. Jody Murphy has also announced plans to run as a Democrat.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice has subpoenaed the state Department of Commerce for records related to the Justice family and its private businesses, and several state GOP committees have publicly rebuked the governor.
For now, Smith will enjoy being by his lonesome on the ticket. If Manchin mulling an entrance in the race keeps other candidates “in their holes,” as Bissett put it, those candidates will continue to lose ground fundraising, building name recognition and staffing up a political machine.
Damaging to any potential challengers or not, Bissett said there’s at least one shared trait between Manchin and Justice.
“The one thing I can say about Joe Manchin and Jim Justice that I feel very confident about is no one tells either man what to do,” he said. “They will make their own decision in their own time, when they’re ready.”
An earlier version of this story omitted Jody Murphy, who is running for governor as a Democrat.