Sen. Joe Manchin’s decision against attempting a return to the Governor’s Office is part of a daisy chain of power moves as hard to follow as the last three episodes of “Game of Thrones.”
Manchin, D-W.Va., is both a former governor and a maker of two of them.
Manchin first ran for governor in 1996, losing in the Democratic primary to West Virginia’s doyenne of progressivists, Charlotte Pritt. She ultimately succumbed in a tight general election to Cecil H. Underwood, a sleepy country club Republican, who had first served as governor in 1956. Underwood got the edge over Pritt with the quiet support of her party’s majordomo and his old pal, Robert C. Byrd, who first won his U.S. Senate seat in 1958.
In 2004, Manchin finally won the state’s top executive job after beating his underfunded Republican opponent and, in 2008, was reelected in a landslide against a virtual unknown.
In 2010, all of a sudden and to everyone’s surprise, Byrd died at the shocking age of 92.
Then-Gov. Manchin immediately pledged not to appoint himself as Byrd’s successor. Manchin instead appointed his general counsel, Carte Goodwin, to the U.S. Senate, upon which Goodwin immediately declared he would not run for reelection. Manchin, to everyone’s surprise, announced that he would run for Byrd’s seat, a free shot because he could continue to serve as governor while running for federal office.
Manchin won in a special election and vacated the governor’s seat, making West Virginia Senate President and long-reigning Logan County Democratic politician, Earl Ray Tomblin, the acting governor. Tomblin, a sleepy country club Democrat, ran in a special election in 2011 to fill Manchin’s unexpired term ending in 2013 and ran again for his first full-term as governor in 2012.
In 2014, an historic political shift occurred. After 70 years in the wilderness, the Republicans took control of the West Virginia Legislature and consolidated GOP positions up and down the ballot. Manchin became the rare Democrat who retained power and the only one in the state’s congressional delegation.
Manchin’s party was in tatters. It had little money.
In 2015, Manchin made a clever move. He recruited one of the state’s few billionaires, Jim Justice, who once owned a sleepy country club in Beckley, to lead the Democratic ticket against Bill Cole, a car dealer from Bluefield whom you could imagine belongs to a sleepy country club.
Justice, once a Republican, became a Democrat and showered his personal money to win the Governor’s Office in 2016 against the tide of Donald J. Trump, the owner of lots of country clubs. Justice pulled a major victory, beating superior GOP party organization and finances.
In 2017, Justice, although a creature of the Democratic Party, switched his party affiliation to Republican, turning the Democratic star into one of its biggest rats, which, conveniently, is “star” spelled backwards.
The switcheroo no doubt displeased Manchin. Once wildly popular, Manchin since has become only seasonably popular. He remains a moderate in an age of extremism. In 2018, Manchin barely won reelection to the U.S. Senate against Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican from New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and, ultimately, somewhere in the Eastern Panhandle.
In his party’s 2020 primary, Manchin would have faced Stephen Smith, and maybe others. The problem for candidate Smith is that no one knows who he is or what he does for a living. A progressive of the Pritt mold, Smith is a Beto O’Rourke in the making.
Unlike Pritt in 1996, Smith won’t get many votes of organized labor or the teacher unions. Without Manchin to flee to, they will stick with Justice, although begrudgingly, despite Justice’s costly courtship of them.
Manchin knows that, had he run, Smith and their party’s left wing would not have let him easily off the hook, and certainly not without a country clubbing to the head largely financed with donations of rich coastal elites.
Still, Manchin would have won the nomination.
If Justice runs for re-election in 2020, which he says he is going to do, he needs to beat two leading Republican challengers, his former Commerce secretary, Woody Thrasher, and Mike Folk, nipping at his heels in the latest West Virginia poll.
The same poll shows that, in a presumed match-up between Manchin and Justice, the Democrat would win if the race were held today. Manchin would have gotten another free shot for high political office while, this time, retaining his Senate seat.
Sounds familiar. So, why did Manchin back off?
There are factors larger than West Virginia at play. Nationally, the Democrats would have been profoundly unhappy with a Manchin decision to leave a Senate in the balance of power. His departure would have taken a seat safe for Democrats and likely turned it over to the dreaded Republicans.
For his decision not to run for governor, perhaps Manchin will be given a bigger seat at the national table.
The national stakes are who will be the next president who will make many more appointments to the federal courts and, of course, nabbing the biggest prize of all: filling the next vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. These need the Senate’s advice and consent.
Remember: Just about everything in U.S. politics today is about the U.S. Supreme Court.