Home » Joe Manchin’s long career tells the tale of West Virginia’s transformation from blue to red

Joe Manchin’s long career tells the tale of West Virginia’s transformation from blue to red

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin announced Thursday that he would not seek reelection, a decision that all but guarantees Republicans will flip his Senate seat next year. Manchin also indicated that he was still interested in pursuing an independent or third-party bid for president, declaring that he would begin “traveling the country and speaking out to see if there is an interest in creating a movement to mobilize the middle and bring Americans together.”

Two Republicans, Gov. Jim Justice and Rep. Alex Mooney, were already competing in the May primary. Justice has the backing of Donald Trump and Senate Republicans, and he’s posted huge leads in every primary poll that’s been released. Mooney, though, is hoping he can still run to the right of the term-limited governor, who switched from Republican to Democratic the year before he won the 2016 election but switched back to the GOP the following year.

Manchin, whose 2018 reelection made him the last Democrat to win statewide office (with the exception of officially nonpartisan court races), is ending a long political career that began when West Virginia was a blue bastion. In a sign of just how much the state has changed, Manchin, the nephew of a former state treasurer, was one of 87 Democrats when he was first elected to the 100-member state House in 1982. The chamber now has just 11 Democratic members.

But that transformation was still many years off when Manchin won a promotion to the state Senate in 1986. Exactly a decade later, he decided to run statewide when he entered the primary to replace termed-out Democratic Gov. Gaston Caperton.

Manchin, however, struggled to win the nomination against former state Sen. Charlotte Pritt, who ran to his left. Manchin, who was close to the coal industry, charged that his foe backed abortion rights and opposed gun rights. But Pritt, who had extensive labor support, highlighted her longtime membership in the NRA. Pritt ultimately beat Manchin 40-33 in what would turn out to be the only defeat of his career.

Following that loss, a bitter Manchin did what he could to undermine Pritt in the general election against Republican Cecil Underwood, who was running to reclaim the governorship 36 years after he, too, was termed out of the post. Manchin endorsed Underwood late in the campaign and sent letters to 900 notable state Democrats telling them their nominee wasn’t “interested in the concerns of moderate and conservative Democrats.” Other major Democrats like Caperton and the legendary Sen. Robert Byrd also distanced themselves from Pritt, though unlike Manchin, they didn’t cross party lines to back Underwood.

The assault badly damaged Pritt, who had led Underwood by 22 points in one July poll, in a year where President Bill Clinton was poised to easily carry the state against Republican Bob Dole. Underwood, who was the last West Virginia Republican to distance himself from his party’s presidential nominee, ultimately beat Pritt 52-46 as Clinton was taking the state in a 52-37 landslide. “He’s not a real Democrat and never has been,” Pritt said of Manchin in a 2017 Politico interview a year after she ran for governor as the nominee of the left-leaning Mountain Party and lost to Justice, who was still a Democrat at the time.

Manchin’s disloyalty, however, didn’t harm his political future. In 2000, he campaigned to succeed Democratic Secretary of State Ken Hechler, who was giving up his post after 16 years to unsuccessfully run for the House. Manchin once again faced Pritt in the primary, but this time, he prevailed by a 51-29 margin. Republicans did not even field a candidate in the general election; instead, Manchin beat a Libertarian foe 89-11. Rep. Bob Wise, meanwhile, unseated Underwood 50-47 and Democrats easily maintained their massive majorities in the legislature.

However, those wins coincided with George W. Bush’s 52-46 defeat of Al Gore in West Virginia, which would start an unbroken string of Republican presidential victories that would gradually trickle down to the state’s downballot politics. In a further sign that year of things to come, Republican Shelley Moore Capito also won the race to succeed Wise, a pickup that ended the Democrats’ complete control of the state’s congressional delegation.

Wise’s standing collapsed in 2003 due to the state’s economic problems and his affair with a government employee, prompting Manchin to plan a primary challenge before the governor announced he wouldn’t seek reelection. Manchin forged ahead, and his second campaign for the top post was far easier than his first: He consolidated party support quickly and won the Democratic primary 53-27 against state Sen. Lloyd Jackson. A few months later, he decisively beat Republican Monty Warner 64-34.

However, while Democrats were still the dominant party, Bush’s 56-43 win over John Kerry gave them reasons for caution about their future. That showing coincided with Hechler’s failed bid to return to the secretary of state’s office, while coal billionaire Don Blankenship helped fund a successful campaign to take down a Democratic justice on the state Supreme Court. “This state is not going to revert back to people voting blindly for Democrats,” Manchin told the New York Times after the election. “We’re going to have to earn their votes. And if we don’t, we’ll continue to get picked off one by one.”

Manchin nonetheless proved to be a very popular governor, and he secured a second term in a 70-26 landslide four years later even as John McCain was beating Barack Obama 56-42 in the state. Like his predecessors, Manchin was barred from running for a third term, but everything changed in 2010 when Byrd died after a record 51 years in the Senate. Manchin appointed Democrat Carte Goodwin as a placeholder and quickly launched his own campaign for the final two years of Byrd’s term. For a time, it even looked like the governor was on a glide path in an otherwise tough climate for his party.

Manchin did indeed easily beat the 95-year-old Hechler in the primary, but Republican media magnate John Raese gave him more trouble than he might have expected in what was shaping up to be a red wave year. Manchin worked to separate himself from the Obama administration with an ad that featured him shooting a copy of a stalled climate bill.

He also got an opening late in the campaign when Politico reported that a Philadelphia casting call for an NRSC ad had asked for actors to depict people “from West Virginia so think coal miner/trucker looks.” Manchin’s team worked to blame the debacle on Raese, declaring in one spot, “John Raese thinks we’re hicks.”

Manchin prevailed 53-43 in a year when Democrats struggled in much friendlier states, though the GOP flipped the 1st Congressional District. Manchin continued to defy gravity two years later when he ran for a full term, riding his personal popularity to a 61-36 drubbing in a rematch with Raese even as Mitt Romney was beating Obama 62-35.

By the end of 2014, though, he was the only Democrat left in the state’s congressional delegation two years later, after Capito easily won the race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Republican Evan Jenkins toppled longtime Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall. And the once solidly Democratic state legislature at long last fell to the GOP that year as well, never to go blue again.

While serving on Capitol Hill, Manchin frequently expressed nostalgia for his time as governor. He even mulled campaigning for his old job in 2016 even though he’d have to work with a Republican-dominated legislature that could override vetoes with a simple majority. National Democrats were horrified by the prospect, especially since state lawmakers could pass a law forbidding the governor from filling any vacant Senate seats. When Manchin decided to stay put, it came as a deep relief.

But Manchin’s flirtations with leaving the Senate behind never ended. The Trump administration discussed naming him to the cabinet so Republicans could replace him in the Senate, and while he publicly declined to take any post, Democrats feared he’d retire in 2018 anyway. The New York Times in fact reported that the senator, who loved to proclaim, “Washington sucks,” came close to calling it a career that cycle only for his colleagues to talk him into running again.

D.C. Democrats also did what they could to help by meddling in the three-way GOP primary between Blankenship, Jenkins, and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. While Democrats would have loved to face Blankenship, who had been sentenced to a year in prison after a deadly explosion in one of his mines, he was likely too long of a shot. They instead focused on running a barrage of ads to weaken Jenkins so Morrisey could benefit.

Morrisey did indeed secure the GOP nod, and he presented an ideal foil for Manchin. The senator and his allies attacked the attorney general’s New Jersey roots and work on behalf of pharmaceutical companies—a major liability in a state dealing with the brunt of the opioid crisis. And while Manchin infuriated his party by voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, that vote helped him argue he remained different from other Democrats.

Even the GOP’s top super PAC seemed to believe Manchin’s pitch: The Senate Leadership Fund stopped spending in the final days of the campaign, apparently believing Morrisey was doomed. That belief was apparently off-base, though: Manchin ended up pulling off a fairly tight 50-46 win that was not only the closest statewide contest of his career but also the last time a West Virginia Democrat would win a statewide race.

Manchin soon went back to weighing a bid for governor against Justice, who had fired the senator’s wife as state secretary of education and the arts. Democrats, naturally, were once again relieved when he decided not to. Manchin’s frequent dissents from the party line allowed him to become perhaps the most influential member of the upper chamber following the 2020 elections, when Democrats were dependent on his vote in the evenly divided Senate but often could not count on it.

To the frustration of his party, Manchin continued to remain a major player even after Democrats netted a seat in 2022, especially after he started talking about a presidential bid. Now, though, Democrats will have to defend every other seat they currently hold in 2024 or flip GOP-held seats in states Trump won in order to retain control of the Senate.

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November 2023