Dem 51
image description
GOP 49
image description

Rage Against the Manchin

Speaking of Joe Manchin, David Axelrod—Barack Obama's leading strategist—was on CNN last week and had a comment on the senator: "I don't want to be unkind to Senator Manchin, but he's kind of dead man walking in West Virginia. There's nowhere for him to go." Clearly Axelrod had seen the recent poll of the West Virginia Senate race in which Gov. Jim Justice (R-WV) was leading Manchin by 22 points.

We think Axelrod is speaking a bit prematurely. First, Manchin hasn't entered the race yet. He could decide to run for governor, since he won the office twice before and it will be an open seat in 2024. Second, Justice hasn't won the primary yet. He is facing Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV), and some right-wing groups, including the Club for Growth, are calling Justice (who first ran for election and won as a Democrat) a RINO. These groups will spend big time to defeat Justice and will certainly sully his name even if he wins the primary. The Club for Growth has said it will drop $10 million to attack Justice and help Mooney. That's a lot of money in a cheap-advertising state like West Virginia. And even if Justice wins the primary, Manchin has won six statewide elections in West Virginia as a Democrat. This won't be his first rodeo. He knows something about winning elections in the Mountain State.

It took a few days, but Team Manchin is hitting back at Axelrod. Jonathan Kott, who has served as Manchin's aide, said: "David Axelrod doesn't know a lot about West Virginia politics and is a brilliant strategist but probably doesn't spend much time in West Virginia with Joe Manchin and should before he counts him out." Kott also noted that Justice hasn't won the primary yet and voters don't like turncoats. You can bet that Mooney is going to make a big deal about Justice's switching parties after he was safely elected and hammer on the fact that he is a lifelong Democrat. The primary will be bloody. Kott also noted that pollsters predicted that Barack Obama would have no chance against Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Donald Trump would be crushed in 2016.

A point Kott made and which Manchin will make endlessly if he runs, is that as chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Manchin has a lot of clout. He got the Mountain Valley pipeline approved, which will create 2,500 jobs in poor West Virginia. Other pieces of pork he got may add an additional 10,000 jobs. If Justice beats Manchin and the Republicans take over the Senate, Sen. John Barasso (R-WY) will become chairman of the Senate Energy Committee. Justice will be the most junior member, assuming he even gets assigned to the Committee, which is not a certainty because as a newbie senator he will be last in line on committee assignments.

Another factor is that the election is 17 months away. Manchin could spend the next 17 months opposing everything Joe Biden does. After all, with 51 votes, the Democrats don't need his vote any more and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) could give him permission to oppose every bill Schumer brings up. This could give Manchin lots of street cred back home. The only problem with this approach is that Sen. Krysten Sinema (I-AZ) is also likely to oppose a lot of bills and Schumer has no control over her and he can't afford to lose two votes on bills. Since Sinema is a loose cannon, Schumer may need Manchin on some bills.

Thanks to these dynamics, West Virginia is in the lead right now in overall spending on the 2024 U.S. Senate races, with the total approaching $5 million. Some groups are spending money to promote Mooney or Justice in the primary. The group One Nation has spent $2 million to paint Manchin as too liberal for West Virginia. The group Duty and Honor, which takes its cues (in part) from Schumer, has spent $1.5 million talking about Manchin's independent approach and his moderate fiscal views.

If Manchin decides not to run for reelection to the Senate, then the Democrats will turn off the money spigot, and West Virginia will end up middle-of-the-pack when it comes to spending. But if he runs, and he makes up that polling gap, then we're going to learn if it's possible to dump nine figures' worth of campaign money into a state with a population less than 1.8 million people ($100 million in spending would equate to $55 for every man, woman and child in the Mountain State). We suspect Manchin will run to keep his seat, and that folks who live in West Virginia are going to be heartily sick of political ads when November rolls around. And by that, we mean November 2023. (V)

This item appeared on Read it Monday through Friday for political and election news, Saturday for answers to reader's questions, and Sunday for letters from readers.                     State polls                     All Senate candidates