Joe Manchin Can’t Be Democrats’ Only Strategy for Holding West Virginia

Senator Joe Manchin celebrates his victory on November 6, 2018. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

One of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate is considering a run for governor. Politico reported on Friday that Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia may challenge his state’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, in 2020. “I think about it every minute of every day. Now, thinking about it and doing it are two different things,” he said. “I’ll make a decision this fall sometime. I don’t think there’s any hurry at all.”

The news that a gubernatorial race is even on Manchin’s mind will likely disturb other members of his party. Democrats face a difficult path to retaking the Senate in 2020, and Manchin’s seat is pivotal; that’s the national party’s stated rationale for its tolerance of his conservative voting record. West Virginia is just too right wing, and Manchin is the party’s only hope. Governor Manchin means a new Republican senator. That’s probably true, but regardless of Manchin’s next move, sooner or later Democrats will have to confront their defeatism about West Virginia and other conservative states.

Manchin previously served as the state’s governor, and as gubernatorial candidates go, he’d probably prove a safer bet than his party’s previous choice: Justice, who flipped to the GOP after taking office. (That maneuver did not earn him the loyalty of the state Republican Party. This week the Kanawha County Republican Executive Committee passed a no-confidence resolution targeting Justice, who recently refused to sign a GOP bill that would have created some charter schools in the state.) Manchin also knows how to win a statewide race in a right-wing state, and there’s no question that he would be preferable to Justice, or a Republican to Justice’s right. Though Manchin wouldn’t move the state as far to the left as some would like, a Democratic governor who actually stays in the party could help block the GOP’s legislative priorities in an increasingly far-right state.

Nevertheless, the Democratic Party’s chances in West Virginia don’t look great. The state remains broadly supportive of President Donald Trump. Even if Manchin did manage to win in 2020, another Democrat — whether they’re a progressive populist or a conservative Democrat in Manchin’s mold — would likely run into trouble in the next Senate race. That gamble isn’t one the party can afford right now, with Alabama senator Doug Jones’s seat in real jeopardy too. As Politico points out, Manchin defeated his Republican challenger in the 2018 midterms by just three points.

But there’s reason to think the state is changing — perhaps not in time for a Manchin gubernatorial run to do anything but deliver a Senate seat into Republican hands, but down the road, if the Democratic Party actually treats the state as if it’s something other than a place where its electoral dreams go to wither. As conservative as West Virginia is, it’s not marching in place. Democratic candidates in the state’s three congressional districts far outperformed Hillary Clinton’s showing against Trump. Democrat Talley Sergent improved 14 points on Clinton in the state’s Second Congressional District; in its Third Congressional District, Democrat Richard Ojeda improved on Clinton by 20 points. Kendra Fershee, in the First Congressional District, outperformed Clinton by eight points. Although these results aren’t proof that a Democrat could successfully keep Manchin’s seat in party hands, they do provide some reason to think that the situation is not as hopeless as conventional wisdom dictates.

The state can move, for the right candidate. It’s up to the party to boost its recruitment efforts, not just for congressional candidates but for local races, too, to build up its backbench. National Democrats can’t rely on Joe Manchin forever. If they want an alternative, they’ll have to invest.

Manchin Can’t Be Democrats’ Only West Virginia Strategy