CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has benefited from waiting to reveal where he stands as the swing vote in a chamber closely divided between Democrats and Republicans.
He’s taken the same approach when it comes to the next phase of his political career: The moderate Democrat has teased possible retirement, a run for reelection to the Senate or even a presidential campaign in 2024 — possibly as an independent candidate.
During a multi-day trip to West Virginia’s capital this week, the 76-year-old expressed growing frustration with the polarized U.S. two-party system.
“I’m having a hard time — I really am,” he said while touring a Charleston metal stamping plant. “The two-party system, unless it changes, will be the downfall of our country.”
Manchin’s visit included the metal plant, which began being revitalized during his governorship, and an Amtrak station renovated with infrastructure funds he helped secure. He told reporters he was “getting closer” to a 2024 decision, repeating his line that he’ll make an announcement before the end of the year. But he deflected questions about his identity as a Democrat, which he’s held since first running for West Virginia’s House of Delegates in 1982.
“Don’t worry about the ‘D’ or the ‘R’, worry about the person — who is that person?” said Manchin, who was a Democratic secretary of state and governor of West Virginia. “There can be a good D and a bad D and a good R and a bad R, but the identity — I like more the independent identity.”
Manchin, who joined Congress in 2010 and rose to prominence in West Virginia politics when both coal and the Democratic Party were king, has wielded his influence like few other politicians in recent years.
He managed to win reelection in 2018 in one of former President Donald Trump’s most loyal states as the last of his party to hold statewide office in now-deep red West Virginia.
However, some observers say he faces very tough odds if he runs for reelection, particularly as the state’s enormously popular Republican Gov. Jim Justice has entered the race.
Some progressive Democrats over the past few years have grown weary of Manchin. His vote is one of two they’ve had to beg, convince and cajole in a 51-49 Senate — but his nearly constant chides at many fellow Democrats, particularly President Joe Biden, left them concerned he could switch parties and take away their slim hold on power.
One of his most stunning rebukes of his party came in December 2021 when after months of painstaking negotiations directly with the White House, Manchin pulled his support from a $2 trillion social and environmental bill, dealing a fatal blow to Biden’s leading domestic initiative in his first year in office.
Months later, in a surprise turn of events, Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer crafted a compromise package to ultimately pass and sign into law a modest domestic bill focused on healthcare and climate change.
As Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair, Manchin has used his sway to push a variety of West Virginia initiatives, including support for miners with black lung and the completion of the contested Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline. If he chooses to run for any office, he will be counting on nuts and bolts investments making a difference to voters.
Two Republicans, Justice and Rep. Alex Mooney, are already vying for Manchin’s Senate seat. The senator had recruited Justice to run for governor as a Democrat before Justice, in a surprise move, switched to the GOP at a rally for Trump during his first term.
Over the last months, Manchin appeared in New Hampshire at an event for No Labels, a national political movement that could offer an independent presidential ticket in 2024. He’s currently holding around $10.8 million in campaign funds, compared to Mooney’s $1.5 million and Justice’s $800,000.
Still, Justice has a high approval rating in West Virginia, making him a formidable opponent for any candidate.
Robert Rupp, a retired political history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan, called Manchin one of the most successful campaigners in recent state history because of his personal relationships with constituents.
The question, Rupp said, is whether Manchin will “risk his reputation and further political career by running for a race where the odds are overwhelmingly against him.”
“On paper, most of the people would write him off, but I haven’t, based on his past record of success,” Rupp said. “I have some doubts that he would run as an independent, since that’s in many ways a road to nowhere.”
Meeting with constituents this week, Manchin stressed the importance of infrastructure investments and the bipartisanship that crafted the historic law. Many rural communities suffer from the consequences of deferred maintenance, he told a small crowd at the ribbon-cutting for Charleston’s $6.4 million Amtrak renovation project.
He spoke about American political unrest, and said the democracy is still an experiment after 240-plus years, “one that could fail at any time.”
He said voters shouldn’t be concerned with a politician’s party, as long as their focus is “public service, not self-service.”
As for politicians taking zero-compromise positions on party loyalty: “I’m not so sure whether they really care enough to put their politics aside and do what’s best for the country, and that scares me.”
He described himself as “fiscally responsible and socially compassionate” and said the government’s purpose is to provide a good quality of life for its citizens, regardless of race, religion, “whoever you like, love, whatever gender you may be — it doesn’t matter.”
Multiple times, he said his way of thinking and voting is “independent” and said he identifies more as a public servant than with either party, both of which have their “pluses and minuses.” He criticized the political system in Washington he said has become too much of a “business model” pushing politicians to extremes.
“We’ve got to break that,” he said. “People have to start pushing back — the average voter has to push back. This is not normal. It’s not normal for people to act this way.”