Joe Manchin Is Finally Leaving the Democratic Party

Senators Meet For Their Weekly Policy Luncheons On Capitol Hill

Could Manchin be reopening the door to a last-minute 2024 candidacy?
Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

West Virginia senator Joe Manchin has long been a vestige of a bygone age in which relatively conservative politicians, especially from relatively conservative states, were plentiful in the Democratic Party. When the 76-year-old two-term incumbent and former governor announced his retirement from the Senate last November and then passed up an independent presidential run earlier this year, it appeared he would drift off into history as one of the last of his breed. He had very recently even reinforced his tenuous ties to the Democrats he has disrespected regularly by endorsing the party’s nominee for West Virginia governor, Steve Williams.

But now, halfway out the door, Manchin has suddenly announced he is switching his voter registration status from Democratic to independent. The timing is almost certainly significant: Today is the final day West Virginia candidates can establish their party status for the 2024 general election. Now, Manchin has until August 1, in theory, to decide whether to abandon retirement and run for another Senate term as an independent, or perhaps abandon Williams and run for governor, a position he held from 2005 to 2010.

Even as an independent, and even if all this waffling over his intentions doesn’t offend West Virginia voters, this isn’t a particularly good time for Manchin or any other non-Republican to run for statewide office in that state, which Donald Trump won by 42 points in 2016 and 39 points in 2020. His Senate seat will almost certainly be occupied by Governor Jim Justice, a longtime Manchin rival who is himself a former Democrat. Before Manchin announced his retirement, Justice was leading him by double digits in the polls. Loyalty to Williams aside, a gubernatorial run might make more sense: Republican nominee Patrick Morrisey isn’t terribly popular; he just won a close and complicated GOP primary; and he lost to Manchin in a 2018 Senate race.

But who knows what Manchin is thinking? He’s been playing Hamlet for a long time, both in West Virginia, where his political future has been a constant topic of puzzled speculation for decades now, and in Washington, where he has thoroughly enjoyed driving his fellow Democrats nuts with his demands for legislative concessions to keep his vote in the party column. Nobody has forgotten his two-year reign as King of America, when Democratic control of the chamber was constantly threatened by Manchin and his sidekick, Kyrsten Sinema (who is also leaving the Senate this year); they did eventually allow Joe Biden some significant accomplishments, but not without quite a bit of pain and angst. Manchin has been a bit of a lame duck since Democrats lost the House in 2022 (while picking up a Senate seat to reduce any one senator’s leverage), ending the trifecta that gave him his power to make or break legislation. So his drift toward a post-political retirement seemed inevitable — until now.

As we await the final word on Manchin’s future, his newly independent status adds another member to the odd pack of indies participating in the Senate Democratic Caucus:

Democrats will mourn the likely loss of his Senate seat, but they may be quite happy to give Joe Manchin a ticket to the political boneyard. The West Virginian, however, will have the satisfaction of saying that he broke up with them first.

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