Manchin makes way for a likely GOP successor
West Virginia shifted from blue to red during the senator’s tenure
West Virginia state legislator Chuck Horst was not expecting to learn Thursday afternoon that one of his U.S. senators, Joe Manchin, wouldn’t pursue reelection in 2024.
“I just sat down on my couch and picked up my phone and I was like, ‘Wow that’s news to me,’” said Horst, a member of the state House of Delegates. Still, Horst acknowledged, the change had been building for some time. West Virginia isn’t the same state it was when Manchin, a moderate Democrat, was first elected to office.
“After months of deliberation and long conversation with my family, I believe in my heart of hearts that I have accomplished what I set out to do for West Virginia,” Manchin said in a video announcement posted to X on Thursday. “I will not be running for reelection to the United States Senate.”
Instead, Manchin pledged to travel the country in the coming months to gauge support for a “movement to mobilize the middle.” Manchin has not made it clear whether his decision marks the end of his political career or the beginning of something new.
Back on Capitol Hill, the senator leaves behind an empty seat, a narrowly divided chamber, and a legacy of standing in the middle.
The two-term senator was first elected to the Senate in 2010 after the death of Sen. Robert Byrd. Since then, he had been one of the Senate’s most influential moderates, often acting independently to achieve policy goals that seemingly ran counter to the national Democratic platform—especially on issues of fiscal responsibility and energy.
In perhaps his most memorable move, Manchin torpedoed President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislative package in 2021, citing concerns over rising inflation. Once a $3.5 trillion omnibus, the bill would later pass as the Inflation Reduction Act—a $433 billion expenditure and a far cry from its initial design.
“I think the senator at that point was trying to represent West Virginia and his beliefs,” Horst said.
Manchin has represented the Mountain State since 1982 as a delegate, then as a state senator, a secretary of state, and a governor, before finally making his way to the U.S. Senate. In the 1980s, West Virginia was a solidly Democratic state. But it steadily leaned more and more Republican.
Horst pointed to voter registration numbers as evidence. In January 2016, 47 percent of registered voters in the state were Democrats. Only 29 percent were Republicans. Now in October 2023, the number has flipped: 31 percent of registered voters are Democrats. Nearly 40 percent are Republicans. Horst said he thinks the state is much redder than the numbers indicate because voters might not update their registration information as their ballot patterns change. The shift begs the question of whether Manchin—as a Democrat—would have the support to pull off one more victory in 2024.
It also doesn’t help Manchin’s odds that the definition of “Democrat” had changed over the years.
“I think the party ran to the left and left the senator towards the center,” Horst said. “I sense that he’s a very loyal guy, very loyal to his party and I sense that’s why he never changed party affiliations. There have been people who have been pushing him to change his affiliation to Republican.”
With Manchin out of the race, Horst thinks the state’s next senator will almost certainly be Republican—likely West Virginia’s governor, Jim Justice. Justice announced his bid for Manchin’s seat in April. A poll put out by Emerson College in mid-October found that Justice led the incumbent 41-28 percent in a head-to-head race. The remaining voters responded they would vote for someone else or were undecided.
Now, with the seat vacant, it seems that Republicans may have a straight shot at flipping a seat in the narrowly divided Senate. Currently, Democrats hold a 51-49 majority. If Republicans can manage to turn two more seats, they could regain control of the chamber and flip the balance of power on Capitol Hill. The absence of a meaningful Democratic challenger in West Virginia also frees up Republican resources to devote to campaigns elsewhere.
Horst isn’t necessarily going to miss Manchin’s politics. He has disagreed sharply with the senator on matters like the Second Amendment. But Manchin has been a large part of the state’s story in the past two decades. Horst says that’s a part of Manchin’s legacy too.
“I think anyone with the ‘R’ is going to be more representative … I’m looking forward to West Virginia moving forward,” Horst said. “In the senator’s video he highlighted that there’s a lot of good going on in West Virginia—and there is. I think that’s fair on his part to claim a little bit of that.”
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