West Virginia Senate: Manchin’s Exit Pushes Seat to Solid GOP

by Jacob Rubashkin November 9, 2023 · 3:46 PM EST

Sen. Joe Manchin’s decision to forgo a tough re-election campaign next year removes any real chance of Democrats holding a Senate seat in West Virginia, and deals a blow to his party’s odds of maintaining their narrow majority in the upper chamber.

We’re changing our rating of the West Virginia Senate race from Tilt Republican to Solid Republican.

The cantankerous Manchin was the last remaining statewide Democratic officeholder in West Virginia, which was once a stronghold for the party but over the past two decades has shifted rapidly to become one of the most Republican states in the nation. In 2020, President Donald Trump carried the Mountain State by 39 points, his second-largest margin of victory anywhere.

Manchin had held on where his fellow Democrats had failed by bucking his party often and loudly — he famously shot a copy of Democrats’ “cap and trade” legislation in a campaign ad — and was the only candidate left in the state with enough cross-partisan support, stemming from his policy stances as well as his deep West Virginia roots, to keep the 2024 race in contention.

Despite his previous victories, Manchin would have been an underdog for re-election. But without him on the ticket, Republicans are virtually guaranteed to flip the seat. The GOP only needed a net gain of two seats to win Senate control next year (or one seat plus winning the White House), and Manchin’s retirement puts them closer to that goal. In order to maintain control, Democrats will have to bring back all of their remaining incumbents (plus hold Michigan and Arizona) and win the presidential election, or find a way to defeat either Ted Cruz of Texas or Rick Scott of Florida.

The Mountain State’s GOP primary currently features two candidates: Gov. Jim Justice and Rep. Alex Mooney. Justice is the early favorite and has a substantial lead in polling, and also has backing from Senate leaders in Washington, D.C., including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, as well as Trump.

Mooney’s allies believe that Manchin dropping out could help change the congressman’s fortunes. Much of Justice’s support from GOP leaders has been premised on the popular governor being a far stronger general election candidate against Manchin than Mooney would be. Mooney, a relatively recent transplant to West Virginia, is unknown in the southern part of the state and has some lingering ethics issues; Manchin often led head-to-head polling against Mooney even as he trailed Justice. 

But with Manchin out of the race and Republicans likely to flip the seat regardless of their nominee, GOP power brokers may be less inclined to spend money helping Justice in the primary when they have races more crucial to building a majority in Ohio, Montana, and elsewhere. If the Club for Growth follows through with its pledge to spend $15 million in support of Mooney in the primary, but the outside money doesn’t materialize for Justice, things could get interesting between the firebrand Freedom Caucus member and the governor, a former Democrat with some financial and ethical baggage of his own.

In the face of a difficult re-election bid, Manchin’s decision is not surprising. But hearing and seeing him make his intentions official is striking and crystalizes Democrats’ difficult path to maintaining control of the Senate.