Moderate Democrat Joe Manchin Retires, Giving GOP a Chance to Flip Senate Seat
Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced Thursday afternoon that he will not seek reelection to the U.S. Senate, offering Republicans the opportunity to pick up a Senate seat in the deep-red state next year. Meanwhile, Manchin may further undermine President Joe Biden’s reelection prospects by laying the groundwork for an independent bid for president in the 2024 elections.
Manchin, often dubbed a “pro-life Democrat” who presided over his state’s transformation into a Republican stronghold, announced his decision not to seek a fourth full term in the Senate in a video posted on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) Thursday afternoon. “I have made one of the toughest decisions of my life and decided that I will not be running for reelection to the United States Senate,” said Manchin. “I believe in my heart of hearts that I have accomplished what I set out to do for West Virginia.” He also noted his familial roots to the state and their faith, remarking, “My family were faithful Catholics who emigrated from Italy and Czechoslovakia.”
Manchin, whose centrist record sometimes frustrated members of both parties, presented his bipartisan bona fides as a strength. “When America’s at her best, we get things done by putting country before party, working across the aisle, and finding common ground” he said. “Many times, this approach has landed me in hot water. But the fight to unite has been worth it.”
His departure could flip his seat from Democratic to Republican hands, putting the GOP one step closer to taking back control of the Senate. Democrats, who now control the chamber by a 51-49 margin, must defend seats held by Jon Tester in Montana, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, as well as in purple states including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin next November.
Manchin’s retirement also touched off speculation that he would be testing the waters for a potential independent presidential bid. “What I will be doing is traveling the country and speaking out to see if there’s an interest in creating a movement to mobilize the middle and bring Americans together,” he concluded.
Pro-life and pro-family advocates’ reaction to his decision to step down, much like Manchin’s voting record, varied. “We are deeply appreciative of Senator Joe Manchin’s longstanding leadership in the pro-life Democratic movement. It is the end of an era of Democratic dominance in what should be a solid blue state. Working men and women flocked to the Democratic Party because of our historic advocacy for the vulnerable and those in need,” Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, told The Washington Stand.
Manchin succeeded, because “he reflected his state and cared about the people of West Virginia,” Day told TWS. “It will be a true loss for the people of West Virginia.”
Others proved more dismissive, particularly as he opposed the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and favored sweeping federal legislation imposing same-sex marriage on all 50 states.
West Virginia Transformed from Blue to Red
Manchin faced an uphill battle to retain his Senate seat in 2024. He squeaked out his last Senate race, in 2018, with less than 50% of the vote. Democrats have lost 109,700 registered voters in West Virginia since 2020, largely over their position on social issues and hostility to coal and fracking.
West Virginia, once firmly Democratic, “is growing increasingly conservative, and polling showed he would have a very difficult path to re-election in 2024. That no doubt factored into his decision making,” FRC Action Vice President Brent Keilen told The Washington Stand.
The Democrat would likely have faced the state’s popular governor, Jim Justice. President Donald Trump, who carried every county in the state, endorsed Justice and attended the rally when Justice switched parties in August 2017. The Biden administration sued Justice’s coal company for $7.6 million roughly one month after he announced his Senate bid. The most recent poll shows Justice leading Manchin by 13 points. “Senator Joe Manchin and I have not always agreed on policy and politics, but we’re both lifelong West Virginians who love this state beyond belief, and I respect and thank him for his many years of public service,” said Justice after Manchin’s retirement.
No Labels Party Presidential Bid
Manchin has long entertained the possibility of running for president with the No Labels Party, which held a townhall meeting in New Hampshire featuring Manchin and former Utah governor and Obama administration ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. The party, which has flirted with recruiting a candidate for more than a decade, has not yet committed to nominating anyone this cycle. In a statement commending Manchin, No Labels announced it is still “gathering input from our members” and will “make a decision by early 2024 about whether we will nominate a Unity presidential ticket and who will be on it.”
The senator’s retirement message presaged the issues he’s likely to highlight in a 2024 presidential bid. “Our economy is not working for many Americans, for the rising cost of food and fuel, and everything in between. We have a border crisis, with illegal drugs entering our country and killing Americans every day. Our national debt is out of control, and Americans don’t feel safe, even in their own communities,” Manchin insisted Thursday. “We must prevent being pulled into a major war ourselves.” Opinion polls show Manchin’s economic and security concerns largely match the American people’s priorities.
Manchin warned last month, “The two-party system, unless it changes, will be the downfall of our country.”
Manchin: A Pro-Life Moderate Who Ultimately Endorsed Roe v. Wade and Same-Sex Marriage
Manchin served six years as governor of West Virginia before winning a special election to succeed the late Senator Robert Byrd in 2010. Manchin, then one of the state’s most popular politicians, has since won three full terms to the U.S. Senate.
Manchin’s FRC Action score fluctuated over the course of his Senate career, ranging everywhere from 0% in 2011 to 55% in 2015. But in 2020, he earned a 48% voting record from NARAL Pro-Choice America (which has since rebranded as Reproductive Freedom for All).
Manchin voted for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, backed the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, and supported protections for babies targeted for abortion if they have Down syndrome. Manchin declared any version of Joe Biden’s signature “Build Back Better” bill that did not contain Hyde Amendment protections, preventing taxpayers from being forced to subsidize elective abortions, “dead on arrival.”
At other times, Manchin proved more unreliable. Manchin voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court but against Amy Coney Barrett. Manchin voted both for and against taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood, voted to allow Planned Parenthood to be part of the COVID-era Paycheck Protection Program, and against repealing Obamacare’s unlegislated HHS mandate.
“He’s been at best uneven on life,” one analyst in the pro-family movement told The Washington Stand. “There are several times he could’ve taken action and made a decisive difference but didn’t.”
Manchin voted for a measure that would essentially ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, although critics warned the ERA could establish a constitutional “right” to abortion and subject women to the military draft. Although the ERA failed to be ratified before its 1982 deadline, and five states have since withdrawn their support, Senate Democrats attempted to treat it as though it had won ratification.
Ultimately, Manchin opposed the Dobbs decision and favored top-down national legislation to impose abortion on all 50 states. “I am deeply disappointed that the Supreme Court has voted to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Manchin declared in June 2022. “I support legislation that would codify the rights Roe v. Wade previously” created.
Manchin voted in favor of religious liberty protections in the so-called “Respect for Marriage” Act, but then voted for its passage without those protections. He also supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013 (ENDA), which would severely curtail the ability of faithful Christians to participate in the market economy.
At times, Manchin showed his willingness to overturn elections. Manchin said Congress should consider overturning two elections by removing Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) for supposedly violating the 14th Amendment’s definition of “sedition” by objecting to the certification of the 2020 election. Perhaps most consequentially for his reelection prospects, Manchin voted on two occasions to impeach President Donald Trump, who crushed Joe Biden in 2020 by 40 points in West Virginia.
Manchin’s mercurial temperament earned him a 22% lifetime rating from Heritage Action, earned a C grade on abortion from SBA Pro-life America, a D grade on immigration from NumbersUSA, and scored 28% on overall constitutional issues on the Freedom Index.
Yet Manchin’s willingness to move rightward led Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of neighboring Kentucky to approach Manchin repeatedly about joining the Republican Party. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he got no response when he texted Manchin in December 2021 with the message, “Joe, if the Democrats don’t want you, we do.” Manchin also publicly mulled over aligning as an Independent, as Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema did last December, although Manchin may have caucused with Republicans. “I want to make sure that my voice is truly an independent voice,” he said.
Manchin’s retirement overshadowed the retirement of Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), who announced his decision not to seek reelection via video five hours later. Wenstrup, who represents rural southern Ohio, earned a 100% voting record from FRC Action.
If nothing else, the once-popular Manchin’s Senate retirement should serve as a cautionary tale for the Democratic Party, as Manchin’s declining popularity has directly tracked with the Democrats’ embrace of taxpayer-funded abortion until birth and other controversial, culture war issues. “The Democratic Party should be looking at West Virginia to gain an understanding of how it went from solid blue to solid red in just over a decade and how to win back the blue-collar workers in that state,” Day told The Washington Stand.
Ben Johnson is senior reporter and editor at The Washington Stand.