Elated Senate Republicans believe they are on the cusp of landing their highest-profile recruit of the 2024 campaign: West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.
Justice, a Democrat-turned-Republican with sky-high approval ratings, is increasingly expected to launch a bid for Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) seat after consulting with top party officials in Washington this month, according to a half-dozen GOP senators and aides. A Justice candidacy would notch two big wins for Republicans, breaking their losing streak in recruiting popular governors and reshaping next year’s battleground map.
Republicans privately predict Justice may wait to enter the race until at least next month in order to have a full fundraising quarter. And though the timing is in flux, the GOP would be gobsmacked at this point if he did not run.
He is dropping hints everywhere. He’s put his coal business up for sale to pay off debts and met with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.) last week. He finished up his state’s legislative session earlier this month, pushing through a tax cut after Manchin helped direct federal funds to the state. And he’s been texting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), according to two people familiar with Justice’s interactions.
“The governor has a good political sense. So I am assuming that he’s going to get in,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “It would change things. He has a huge approval rating, he just passed the biggest tax cut in state history. He’s got a lot of good things to talk about.”
But Justice’s plans, not to mention Republicans’ confidence that he puts them in striking distance of picking up a Democrat-held seat, doesn’t faze the incumbent one “iota.” Manchin reiterated in an interview that he won’t decide whether he’ll run until the end of the year, describing himself as content to watch his rivals spar from afar — for a few months, at least.
“God bless them, it’ll be entertaining to watch their primary. That’s the greatest thing,” Manchin said.
The Senate GOP whiffed repeatedly during the 2022 midterms on trying to recruit popular governors like Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Doug Ducey of Arizona and Larry Hogan of Maryland. Already this year, though, former Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has joined the Senate via appointment. Justice is different: The party’s spent months courting him, and Republicans believe if he runs they will get much closer to picking up a Democrat-held seat.
In conversations with D.C. Republicans, Justice has discussed the pros and cons of making the jump from governor to senator, according to one of the people familiar with his interactions. Yet Justice has made no final public decision. And until he files his candidate paperwork, there’s still a chance he backs out.
Should he jump in, he’d immediately help Republicans solidify their path to a majority which runs through Ohio, Montana and West Virginia. They need to net two seats to take back the majority, regardless of the outcome of the presidential race.
Still, a Justice win isn’t straightforward. He’ll have to navigate Republican primary waters in his state that are already choppy thanks to Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.), whom former President Donald Trump and the Club for Growth backed in a hotly contested House GOP primary last year.
Mooney launched his campaign almost immediately after the midterms, and Justice already feuded with him last year when the Freedom Caucus member defeated former Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.). Both Manchin and Justice supported McKinley over Mooney, a former Maryland state senator.
Not only did Justice cut a TV ad for McKinley, he openly questioned Mooney’s “ability to represent West Virginians well, after spending the majority of his time and life representing Maryland.”
In a preview of a potential Senate primary attack line, Justice also claimed last year that he had only met with Mooney once since he became governor. Mooney shot back to POLITICO that the governor’s response was “petty anyhow, the phone works both ways” — adding that he had five pictures with Justice, each of which showed him wearing different ties.
In an interview Thursday, with Justice’s potential launch looming, Mooney vowed that “I can beat whoever runs” but declined to lob fresh attacks at the governor: “I’ll wait for him to announce before I comment on any of that stuff.”
Mooney, a staunch fiscal conservative, could run to Justice’s right. He has already signaled he will knock the governor for endorsing Democrats’ $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure law.
Club for Growth President David McIntosh said his group won’t back Justice, whom he described as in “the moderate camp,” but would be open to supporting Mooney. Meanwhile, the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely aligned with McConnell, commissioned a poll showing Justice as the only candidate who can beat Manchin.
If he decides to run, Justice would also have to file personal financial disclosures that would invite more scrutiny of his financial holdings than he has faced in the past. Asked if he thought the primary sparring could turn personal, Mooney said pointedly: “You should ask him about that.”
The general election could get quite messy, too, in a state where everyone in politics seems to know each other. Manchin and Justice share a political network, with lobbyist and consultant Larry Puccio serving as an advisor to both.
“They are both my friends and wonderful people, past that I really don’t do interviews,” Puccio told POLITICO in a brief phone call. “I’m not an elected official and I prefer to keep my thoughts to myself.”
The race could scramble the close-knit Senate as well. Manchin endorsed a pair of moderate Republicans in the past, and they are returning the favor. One of them, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), said she’s already donated money to Manchin and expected little blowback back home for it. She made the donation a couple weeks ago at a joint event with Manchin, and encouraged other attendees to do the same, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“He’s a close friend. Should he choose to run again, I would anticipate endorsing him,” said the other, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Still, most Republicans suspect Manchin would likely bow out rather than face defeat by Justice. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that “I keep hearing Manchin might not run again if he had to run against the governor.”
“He’s a force to be reckoned with in West Virginia. It’ll be hard for any Republican or Democrat to beat” Justice, said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).
But Manchin isn’t conceding their point. Responding to the idea that Justice would either force him out or beat him, Manchin said: “They could be wrong on both. Who knows?”
Justice ran as a Democrat in 2016, with Manchin’s endorsement, and his later party switch irked the Democratic governor-turned-senator. Manchin then ran for re-election in 2018, defeating Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, but flirted with running against Justice in 2020.
With that in mind, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who chairs Democrats’ campaign arm, brushed aside any aura of invincibility around Justice: “Our incumbent is unbeatable, with a proven track record. So I’m confident.”
“If every time a candidate like Jim Justice got in a race and we said, ‘oh my God forget about it’, we wouldn’t have 51″ seats, said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), a campaign arm vice chair.
The biggest potential wild card for Manchin would be running in a presidential year, requiring an extreme split-ticket path to victory in his red state. He won handily in 2012 alongside former President Barack Obama, whom he did not endorse, but plenty has changed in politics since then. Including the GOP governor looking to go to Washington.
“When he gets in, he’ll be a formidable opponent no matter if Manchin runs or not,” Daines said.
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