Had West Virginia senator Joe Manchin indulged his impulse to return home and run once again for what he calls “the best job in the world,” the governorship of his state, the already difficult effort by Democrats to seize and keep control of the Senate would have been complicated further. Instead, he let it be known through staff that he’ll stay where he is, ending months of speculation that he might challenge Democrat turned Republican governor Jim Justice next year.
Had Manchin run and won, he could have appointed a temporary successor to his Senate seat, though a special election would (under current state law) have been required in 2022 to fill the rest of the second full term to which he was elected in 2018. Worse yet, West Virginia’s Republican-controlled legislature could have changed the law to require an immediate special election, in which any Republican running would have been favored given the state’s current partisan complexion.
Democrats still have a tough row to hoe in flipping the three (or, if Donald Trump is reelected, four) net Senate seats they need for regaining control in 2020. But at least now they don’t have to worry about a majority slipping away in 2022 — or earlier — thanks to a lost seat in West Virginia.
The bad news for progressives is that if Democrats do retake the Senate, Joe Manchin will chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he will most definitely try to block any climate-change legislation he considers unfriendly to the fossil fuels his state produces. And if a working Democratic majority in the chamber depends strictly on Manchin, he’s hardly a reliable team player, as his recent endorsement of vulnerable Republican colleague Susan Collins showed.
In West Virginia, the senator’s decision is very good news for Justice; he was trailing Manchin in at least one 2019 poll by ten points. It also gives a very different Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Stephen Noble Smith, a much better shot at demonstrating whether his labor-oriented progressive “populist” message has a future in a state that has been heavily trending Republican.