early and often

Republicans Line Up to Challenge Manchin in 2024 for Sin of Being a Democrat

Biden isn’t the only Joe in Washington whose 2024 plans are a major mystery. Photo: Tom Williams/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

During Joe Manchin’s long and excruciating tenure as the Democratic senator most willing to use his leverage to upend his party’s priorities, the motives of the so-called “King of America” have been murky. Is his primary loyalty to his fiscally conservative principles, or to the fossil-fuel industry, or to his own sensitivities as a much courted yet much deplored figure in Washington? Virtually all answers to the perpetual What does Joe Manchin want? question assume that he is at least tentatively interested in running for a third full term in the U.S. Senate in 2024. If so, he will have to negotiate the politics of a state that has during his Senate tenure became profoundly Republican; Donald Trump carried West Virginia by 42 points in 2016 and 39 points in 2020.

Manchin did win reelection in the relatively strong Democratic midterm election of 2018, beating the winner of a contentious Republican primary by three points. But now Republicans back home and in Washington are lining up to deny him reelection if he pursues it on the compelling grounds that he is no longer their reliable ally in thwarting everything Joe Biden wants to do as president, as Politico explains:

In a potential 2024 race, the West Virginia Democrat would face his state’s conservative voters for what Republicans are already hoping to turn into a referendum on Manchin’s party-line deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. His prospective reelection opponents are already hitting him for “betraying West Virginia and destroying our economy,” as Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) put it. And there’s a crowded GOP field brewing.

That’s right: The relatively small but not-as-small-as-recently-expected and previously left-for-dead FY 2022 budget-reconciliation bill (a.k.a. the Inflation Reduction Act) that Manchin has agreed to with Chuck Schumer is being treated by Republicans as lurid proof that the man is a Democrat. He is not, in other words, some sort of double agent whose role in the Senate is strictly to help Republicans kill legislation. And so if he does run in 2024 there will be a bright-red bullseye on his back that is somewhat brighter than it would have been had he destroyed Biden’s legislative agenda entirely rather than just partially.

Now it’s possible, of course, that Manchin will still be able to market himself to West Virginians as someone willing to bring home the bacon while keeping either party from arrogant lawmaking or extremism. He did, after all, single-handedly kill the Build Back Better package before slowly and grudgingly allowing successor legislation to emerge. And he has never budged in his even more consequential refusal to countenance any weakening of the Senate filibuster power that has doomed nearly every other Democratic legislative priority that could not be included in a filibuster-proof budget-reconciliation bill. His 2024 ads could include a lot of Republican words of praise for his “courage” in bucking the imperial will of the allegedly godless and socialistic Democrat Party. And he would begin the 2024 cycle in pretty good shape: Morning Consult showed him enjoying a 57 percent job-approval rating back home in the first quarter of 2022, including a 69 percent rating among Republicans. While that is presumably about to change, it will take some time for the GOP to restigmatize him.

But it’s also probably time to consider the possibility that Manchin will retire at the age of 76 in 2024, or perhaps try to return to the governorship he once held and appears to have enjoyed. If he does simply end his political career, though, Democrats may wonder why he didn’t just give them whatever they wanted in 2021 and 2022. Perhaps after all he did care about inflation or excessive government spending or the fate of the fossil-fuel industry and the West Virginians employed or otherwise invested in it. Progressives have a bad habit of assuming that cowardice or corruption is the only reason any Democrat would oppose their policy goals. But if anything is clear from the experience of the last two years, it’s that Manchin does not care what progressives think of him.

Assuming Manchin has frustrated a trifecta Democratic government in Washington for the last time (i.e., that said trifecta will likely be gone next year, making Manchin much less important as a legislative bottleneck), then the party’s main interest in him would be the possibility he could run again in 2024 and hold a Senate seat that very clearly Democrats have no business controlling. The 2024 Senate landscape is terrible for the Democrats, as I noted some time ago:

Democrats will be defending 23 Senate seats, three in states carried by Trump in 2020 and six in states carried by Trump either in 2016 or 2020. Republicans will be defending just 10 Senate seats, all of them in states Trump carried twice.

So while they might not want to express so much exuberant support for Manchin ’24 that their words wind up in Republican attack ads, Democrats do need him to try to stick around, if only to tantalize and torment them at some point down the road. If he has to pretend in West Virginia that he will remain the King of America in future Congresses, so be it.

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Republicans Line Up to Challenge Joe Manchin in 2024