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Joe Manchin isn’t a candidate 5 months before the election. But he still has time to change his mind

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Every election cycle, it seems, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia tries to find the best fit for himself, dragging both sides of the political aisle — and an entire home-state electorate — along for a wobbly ride.

Five months before the general election, he’s still not a declared candidate for any office, but he’s hitched up the guessing-game wagon one more time. And there’s still time, albeit shrinking, to mull potential runs for governor, the Senate or even the U.S. presidency.

After recently switching his party affiliation from Democrat to independent, the 76-year-old Manchin is content to leave the Senate in January “and be able to hold a more normal life, if you will.”

But in true Manchin fashion, he leaves the gate open just a crack.

“Never say never, because you never know,” he said.

The rutted path he’s chosen, while not necessarily surprising, leaves voters who haven’t lost interest altogether once again trying to figure out where Manchin is headed. One who has tried to keep up, retired West Virginia Wesleyan political history professor Robert Rupp, brings his own metaphor to the discussion.

“This is a whirling dervish,” Rupp said.

CAREER CROSSROADS

Career-changing moves for Manchin have come in bunches lately.

Manchin announced his party registration switch on June 1, saying he wanted to “continue to fight for America’s sensible majority.” Manchin had been thinking about it at least as far back as last August.

In November, Manchin announced he wouldn’t run for reelection as a Democrat.

Then in December at a Washington roast, Manchin teased a potential third-party run for the White House, joking that the nation could use someone slightly younger than the leading contenders. But in February, Manchin announced he would not run for president, saying he didn’t want to be a “spoiler.”

Manchin had been in the Senate since 2010, when he won a special election following the death of Robert C. Byrd during Manchin’s second term as governor. He’s been there ever since, though he considered returning home to run again for governor in 2016. Instead, he endorsed Jim Justice, who won as a Democrat before himself switching to the Republican Party months after taking office.

In 2019, rather than make another run for governor in the 2020 election and take on Justice, who had become a rival, Manchin decided to remain a senator. That decision proved fruitful as he emerged as a linchpin vote and must-have dealmaker for Democrats in the closely divided Senate. Key Biden administration initiatives on energy and infrastructure likely would not have happened without his buy-in.

ANOTHER RUN FOR GOVERNOR

When Manchin switched parties last month, ears perked up and whispered questions began to circulate: What’s he up to now? The logistics of several possible paths forward offered a glimmer of possible answers.

When he registered as an independent, Manchin met a deadline — barely — in West Virginia for candidates to file their political affiliation 60 days prior to an Aug. 1 deadline to run in this year’s election. That has fueled speculation that he could decide to seek a third term as governor, an office where he was popular. He received nearly 64% of the vote to win his first term in 2004 and 70% of the vote in nabbing a second term in 2008.

West Virginia has turned heavily Republican since then. Former President Donald Trump overwhelmingly won the state in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Both chambers of the state legislature now have GOP supermajorities. About 40% of registered voters are Republicans, compared with 30% for Democrats and about 25% with no party affiliation.

If Manchin tries for a return to the governor’s office, he’d face an election rematch with Republican Patrick Morrisey and an awkward campaign showdown with Democrat Steve Williams, the mayor of Huntington and the party’s chosen nominee. In the 2018 U.S. Senate race, Manchin defeated Morrisey by just over 3 percentage points. In late May, Manchin said publicly that he wouldn’t run for governor and would support Williams.

Along with reversing course on that statement, Manchin would again have to grapple with the sustained popularity in West Virginia of Trump, whose name will adorn the top of West Virginia’s ballot. Morrisey, the state’s attorney general, is a staunch supporter of Trump, who became popular in Appalachia for making broad promises to put coal miners back to work amid a grim economic outlook in the industry.

Trump did not bring the industry back. The number of coal jobs in West Virginia fell from 11,561 at the start of his presidency to 11,418 at the end in 2021, slowing coal’s precipitous decline but not stopping it. Still, Manchin and Democrats often found themselves targeted as enemies of coal in a state where it was still widely seen as a cornerstone of the economy.

Despite a long line of legendary politicians in its history, only two West Virginia governors have been elected to three terms: Republican Arch. A. Moore Jr. in 1968, 1972 and 1984, and Republican Arthur Boreman during the state’s infancy in 1863, 1864 and 1866.

THIRD TIME A SENATOR

Without Manchin in the Senate race, Republicans are oozing with confidence that Justice can pick up his West Virginia seat. If all other races across the country stayed with their current parties, that alone would be enough for them to retake the majority next year. And Democrats are defending 23 seats, including five held by independents, compared to just 10 seats for Republicans.

A decision by Manchin to get back in the race as an independent would be awkward as well because it would set up a matchup against both Justice and Democrat Glenn Elliott, whom Manchin endorsed in the May primary.

Justice and Manchin had a falling-out after Justice switched parties eight months into his first term as governor in 2017. Justice made that announcement on stage with Trump during a rally in Huntington. Justice, a wealthy businessman who owns several coal mines, is a staunch supporter of Trump and won his endorsement.

After Manchin became an independent, Elliott said on X, formerly Twitter, that he had no reason to believe Manchin had any interest in the Senate race.

A Senate race could be Manchin’s toughest in four decades in state politics — and his most expensive. Manchin has raised $11.7 million with $8.5 million cash on hand, compared with $3 million raised with $931,000 cash on hand for Justice, and $125,000 raised with $65,000 cash on hand for Elliott, according to the latest Federal Election Commission records.

OTHER OPTIONS

In April, the leadership of No Labels, a national bipartisan organization, ended its search for a presidential candidate. Manchin had been viewed as one of the top high-profile prospects to seize on widespread dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden and Trump.

If Manchin were to use his independent status to reverse course again and make an independent presidential run, he’d need to hurry. He’s already missed the filing deadline for the general election in seven states, and deadlines are looming in 10 others in June and July, according to the Federal Election Commission.

One other option lurks in the shadows as the senator mulls his future. In Morgantown, West Virginia University President Gordon Gee plans to retire when his contract is up next June. A search for his replacement is in the early stages.

Manchin, a WVU graduate, has not addressed speculation that he might have interest in Gee’s job. A spokeswoman sidestepped questions about it last year. But in the kind of language that Manchin clearly loves to see as others speculate about his path forward, the Dominion Post reported that the university said its search will have “no preconceived outcomes or candidates.”

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Associated Press reporter Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington contributed to this report.

John Raby, The Associated Press






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