As the least progressive Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has been thrust into the national spotlight numerous times for his staunch opposition to many aspects of Biden’s agenda. Despite the criticism Manchin gets from his more liberal counterparts, his recent announcement that he will not run for another term in 2024 is a major blow to Senate Democrats. Since West Virginia voted for Trump by almost 40 points in 2020, the seat is now all but guaranteed to be a pickup for Republicans. The Democratic caucus currently only has a 51–49 majority in the Senate, so they have no more room for error if they want to maintain control of the chamber. Manchin represents their only hope of winning the seat since he has managed to defy West Virginia’s partisanship by winning reelection twice, but he is instead floating a third-party presidential candidacy. While Manchin may think he can win and save America from Trump’s attempts to destroy democracy, throwing himself into the presidential race would only benefit Trump’s campaign.
Recent polling data has indicated that Biden has a tough road to reelection ahead of him. According to a New York Times poll conducted in October, Trump currently leads Biden in five of the six key swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Georgia. While Biden doesn’t currently have any credible challengers in the Democratic primary, his strength as a candidate remains in question.
In an interview with NBC, Manchin stated that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris would not be the best ticket to defeat Trump, citing their shift to the left on issues like immigration and energy. Conversely, his candidacy has been associated with groups like No Labels, which fundraise to get a moderate third-party candidate on the ballot. While Manchin seems confident he can unite enough centrists to defeat Trump without playing spoiler to Biden, a study from the Wall Street Journal found that the presence of third parties, such as No Labels, pulls comparatively more support away from Biden than Trump by a margin of 3%. While this may not seem significant, many Democrats remain convinced that spoiler candidates, such as the Green Party’s Jill Stein, cost Democrats the 2016 election since the number of voters who chose third parties vastly outnumbered Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton in key swing states. If Manchin really wants to save America from the undemocratic, far-right Republican rhetoric, he should try to help Democrats keep their Senate majority by running for reelection and pushing the DNC to find a younger candidate who can reinvigorate their base.
While increasing partisanship is making it more difficult for candidates to win in states with differing political leanings, there is still a path for Manchin to win reelection. First of all, incumbency does matter to voters who have already established trust and name recognition with elected officials, as proven in the recent elections during which incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear was able to win reelection in the deep red state of Kentucky.
Manchin’s Republican opponent would likely be former Democrat Gov. Jim Justice from West Virginia, or Rep. Alex Mooney. A recent poll by Emerson College has Manchin six points ahead of Mooney but 12 points behind Justice, indicating his chances of winning will be vastly different depending on the candidate. While Justice currently has a strong lead, Mooney is the more conservative candidate and has the backing of Club for Growth, a wealthy political action committee that could bolster his chances. If Mooney is able to distinguish his strong conservative record from Justice’s past as a Democrat, he could better appeal to a very conservative West Virginia population and pull ahead in the primary. This would give Manchin an easier path to victory as he would be running against someone dissimilar to him. However, Manchin would still be competitive against Justice since he performed 31 points better than a generic Democrat would have in his last reelection bid, per an analysis by Split Ticket. Manchin also has already fundraised $11 million, whereas Mooney and Justice combined only have $3 million, so running for reelection would divert Republican funds from other states that Democrats need to hold, like Ohio and Montana.
Despite Manchin’s frustrating centrist ideas, Democrats should still be grateful for his time in the Senate. Thanks to his 2018 victory against all odds, Democrats were able to narrowly take control of the chamber in 2020 and used that window to pass legislation that included the largest climate spending bill in U.S. history. I urge Joe Manchin to stop trying to be the hero who saves America from Trump and instead fight to keep his Senate seat. Manchin has already been an unsung hero for the Democratic party and he shouldn’t mar this legacy by becoming yet another third-party candidate who helps elect Trump into office.