I Covered Joe Manchin for Years. He Might Not Care If He Sinks Joe Biden.

I Covered Joe Manchin for Years. He Might Not Care If He Sinks Joe Biden.

Since announcing he won’t run again for Senate, Joe Manchin has left open the door to a third-party presidential campaign. Democrats are naturally anxious about the West Virginia senator’s intentions, fearful of the possible effects of an independent bid on Joe Biden’s reelection chances.

They have good cause to worry: A presidential run would be a fitting capstone for Manchin, who’s built a career around putting his own interests ahead of his party. His brand of centrism has helped him survive West Virginia’s rapid transformation from a blue to red state. But it also helped sow the seeds of the Democratic Party’s demise back home.

I started covering Manchin during his tenure as governor, long before there was a whole microeconomy in Washington devoted to reading his tea leaves. At the time, I was a statehouse reporter for the now-defunct Charleston Daily Mail and, even before that, got a taste of Manchin world as a student journalist when I covered a scandal involving his daughter at West Virginia University. (The same daughter is now helping to pitch donors on a $100 million political project to boost centrism.)

By then, he had already submarined the party once: When he first ran for governor in 1996, Manchin lost the Democratic primary to Charlotte Pritt, a progressive fan favorite. That fall, just before the election, Manchin — who has always been business minded — made clear he wasn’t supporting Pritt in the general election and was instead backing the Republican who went on to win.

Politically, he came of age in an era when climate change and energy issues began to take center stage and a subtle shift was underway in state politics. For decades, there was a divide within the coal industry between union miners and company management, a conflict that historically resulted in notorious strikes and violence in West Virginia’s coalfields. Prominent West Virginia Democrats — notably Sens. Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller — were rooted more deeply in that era when state Democrats supported the coal industry, yes, but from the point of view of the union miners.

But Manchin’s star began rising at a time when the unions were in decline, and labor-management issues began taking a back seat in the face of what both sides saw as a threat to the industry’s very existence — a threat that came largely from the left, which was pushing for environmental regulations. By the time he was elected to a second term as governor, miners were calling a truce with companies so the seemingly cornered industry could fight with one voice against the so-called Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

Manchin was clearly — to use a phrase popularized by a Charleston PR firm at the time — a friend of coal. At the time, and even today, this was largely viewed as politically expeditious or even necessary for a West Virginia politician. It’s also financially convenient, given Manchin’s own business interests in the industry. But the firm embrace of coal was not inevitable.

Byrd managed to stake out a middle ground — he wondered aloud if the industry had dug in too far and was failing to embrace the future, a statement that rocked the coalfields. Climate change legislation was going to happen, the state’s elder statesman wrote, so West Virginia needed to “adapt to it or resist and be overrun by it.”

His prediction turned out to be premature. And a few months later, Byrd died. Manchin then broke a promise and cut short his second term as governor to run for Byrd’s seat in a 2010 special Senate election. It was a campaign made famous by a Manchin campaign ad bucking his national party — and the Democratic president — in the sharpest way imaginable: he shouldered a rifle and literally shot a hole in a paper copy of climate change legislation.

Over a decade later, largely because Manchin became a decisive vote in the Senate, Congress has fundamentally failed to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Capturing Byrd’s seat didn’t alter Manchin’s approach toward the Democratic Party. Even before he was sworn in, Washington was awash in rumors that Manchin might switch parties and become a Republican, a national audience’s first brush with his tortured decision making process.

By 2016, Manchin was helping push a coal baron to become West Virginia’s next governor. He threw his support in the Democratic gubernatorial primary behind Jim Justice, the state’s richest man, a coal mine and resort owner. Justice won, running as a Democrat, elbowing out more progressive Democrats. Then Justice switched parties himself after less than a year in office.

As a Republican and one of the nation’s more popular governors, Justice is now running for Manchin’s Senate seat. Facing a race next year against his old ally that he might very well lose, Manchin announced in November that he would not seek another term.

It’s a decision that’s blown up the Senate map for national Democrats, making their slim chances of holding control of the chamber even slimmer. Manchin is likely the only Democrat in West Virginia who could hold that seat. Without him, Justice appears to be a shoo-in — a near-certain Republican flip in a Senate that’s currently divided by just one vote.

Assuming Justice or another Republican wins, every single federal and statewide officeholder in West Virginia will be a Republican. Manchin’s seat would be the final domino to fall in a once solidly blue state.

In the Senate, Manchin’s political brand gets boiled down to “a centrist Democrat from a red state,” responsible for marathons of waiting to see how he votes on climate change, health care and the Supreme Court. He can make Bill Clinton’s agonized attempts at triangulation look like wind sprints — though in the divided Senate that strategic ambiguity remains the source of his power.

He killed Biden’s ambitious Build Back Better plan to tackle climate change, but then came back and crafted the Inflation Reduction Act, which has all kinds of subsidies for clean energy. Lately, he’s attacked Biden for failing to use the law to help the oil, gas and coal industries.

His decision not to run again was no surprise to me. Manchin is hyper competitive and hates to lose. He also knows how to read a poll: while Justice’s complicated finances could generate some decent attack ads, he remains a formidable candidate. I couldn’t imagine Manchin ending his public life with such a blow to his ego.

This makes it equally hard for me to imagine Manchin embarking on a long-shot, third-party presidential run, despite his suggestions otherwise. Seats on corporate boards, heading up an interest group, a Cabinet post, maybe. But not a presidential bid. It’s not that he would hesitate to challenge a fellow Democrat — rather, losing an election might cost him whatever leverage he still has.

The threat of a run is perhaps his last chip to play before he slips into the obscurity of life after office. Surely, he’s noticed how no one back home talks about Byrd or Rockefeller anymore, even if their names remain on buildings or roads.

He may have let out his true feelings in a press call with West Virginia reporters after he announced his retirement from the Senate. Manchin said when he first arrived in Washington, he was asked, “What happened to the West Virginia Democrat?”

His response to why our home state turned so rapidly away from his party — and the level of frustration it suggested — was revealing.

“I said, ‘They want to know what happened to the Washington Democrat,’’’ Manchin said. ”The West Virginia Democrats still worked hard, they mined the coal, made the steel, built the guns and ships, they gave everything they have, shed more blood, lost more lives for the cause of freedom than most any state, but all of a sudden, we’re not good enough, green enough, clean enough or smart enough. And they got sick and tired of it.”

A third-party run for president, possibly on a ticket funded by the deep-pocketed group No Labels — something Manchin has repeatedly declined to rule out — would turn this frustration into his legacy: He would be remembered as the Democrat who ushered two Republicans into the governor’s office in Charleston, and possibly a third into the White House.

But maybe that’s the point.

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