The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Manchin steps up criticism of Biden administration as 2024 decision looms

Democrats face a brutal Senate map next year, and Manchin’s West Virginia seat is a top target for Republicans

“People say, ‘Will you run for this? Run for president? Run for the Senate again?’ Every option on the table is open for everything,” Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has said. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) is back in a familiar posture — keeping Democrats in suspense.

As Democrats face a dire 2024 Senate map of open seats in red and battleground states, their only hope for holding on to a seat from Trump-loving West Virginia is still keeping them guessing, saying he’ll wait until the end of the year to decide whether to run again — even as national Republicans’ top recruit to take him on is edging closer to his own run.

“I want to be as effective as I can and do my job, and as soon as you do announce then you become more of a target than you already are,” Manchin said in an interview.

The centrist Democrat, who has held on to his seat in a state that voted for Donald Trump by nearly 40 percentage points in 2020, has recently stepped up his criticism of the Biden administration. It’s sparking speculation — that he brushes off — that he is gearing up for a campaign in a state where his survival depends upon keeping a healthy distance from Democrats.

He warned in an op-ed this week that “generations of Americans will ultimately pay the price” if President Biden does not negotiate spending cuts with Republicans, called the administration’s policy allowing financial advisers to consider climate and other social goals “infuriating” and “radical” in a statement two weeks ago, and told the president not to nominate activists after torpedoing several of his nominees.

The steady stream of criticism has the senator reprising the role he played shortly after Biden’s election, when he blocked core pieces of Biden’s agenda while drawing the wrath of the left. Manchin reversed that dynamic when he helped deliver Biden a signature legislative achievement last year, surprising both Democrats and Republicans by signing on to a climate, energy and prescription drug pricing bill that the moderate named the Inflation Reduction Act.

National Republicans, who have made Manchin their top Senate target in 2024, argue that his vote for that bill permanently damaged him at home, where they believe his earlier stymieing of Democrats had boosted his popularity among the state’s working-class voters, who have made a steady exodus from the party. Recently, Manchin, the chairman of the Energy Committee, has criticized the Biden administration for trying to “subvert” the legislation that he helped write to “advance a partisan agenda that ignores both energy and fiscal security.” He even threatened to sue the Treasury Department if he disagrees with its rules on electric vehicle tax credits, which he believes should only apply to vehicles with U.S.-made batteries, and on Friday, he called the administration’s electric vehicle rules “pathetic” and “horrific.”

But Manchin says people are reading too much into his recent moves, saying that he has long believed nominees should not be overtly partisan and that he has deep concerns about the way the Biden administration is implementing what he considers to be an energy security bill.

“Everyone thinks I just jumped out and started waving the flag, right? No,” Manchin said.

And while Democrats are hoping he’ll run for reelection, Manchin — ever the wild card — has not ruled out running for president, instead injecting another note of anxiety for the party into his calculus.

“People say, ‘Will you run for this? Run for president? Run for the Senate again?’ Every option on the table is open for everything,” Manchin said.

Senate Democrats breathed a sigh of relief when Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) declared their intention to run for reelection in the red states where they’ve shown surprising staying power in recent months. But Manchin has let them know not to expect a decision until December.

Democrats privately refer to his decision as being made on “Manchin time” — and are resigned to waiting.

“He marches to his own drummer,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who added he hopes Manchin decides to run again.

The senator’s friends and allies say they genuinely aren’t sure what he’ll do after four decades in politics, including a stint as West Virginia governor.

“He’s obviously got all kinds of considerations: Does he run for the seat? Does he seek higher office? Or does he just get out of politics?” said Ken Langone, a GOP donor and a co-founder of Home Depot who speaks frequently with Manchin and has unsuccessfully urged him to leave the Democratic Party and caucus with Republicans in the Senate.

Manchin, who made a fortune founding a coal brokerage business, said he feels an “obligation” to stay in politics in one way or another to push against what he sees as the growing extremes of both parties.

“I just can’t sail off into the sunset even though I have a boat,” he said, referencing his houseboat on the Potomac River, where he lives when in Washington. “I still have a lot of gas left in the tank.”

Manchin also sounds energized by the possibility of facing off against Gov. Jim Justice, whom Republicans are recruiting to run against him for Senate. Justice, Manchin’s old friend and former supporter, switched parties to become a Republican shortly after becoming governor — announcing the move alongside a jubilant Trump. Justice later fired Manchin’s wife, Gayle Manchin, as his education secretary, and any race between the two politicians would be personal, to say the least.

Manchin called Justice’s comments after firing his wife “hurtful,” noting he and Gayle had known Justice for years. Several former top Manchin aides also worked for Justice before his party switch.

“I wish it hadn’t been done that way,” Manchin said, adding that the pair still are friendly. “I would have never done that. I just wouldn’t.”

But Manchin and his allies say Justice getting in the race would not affect his own decision.

“He wouldn’t run just to stick it to the guy,” said Nick Casey, a West Virginia Democrat who’s worked on Manchin’s campaigns and was once Justice’s chief of staff. “If he had the victory party … I think it would maybe be a cherry on top, but it wouldn’t be the whole dish of ice cream.”

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he believed Justice getting in the race would not affect Manchin’s timing at all.

“He can do it on his timeline, and when he’s ready to make a decision he’ll make a decision,” Peters said.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is encouraging Justice to run and said he is “very popular” in his home state after signing tax cuts into law. Justice recently met with Daines and is selling his family’s coal company, both seen as signs he’ll announce a run soon.

Justice may not have an easy path to the GOP nomination, however. Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) has already thrown his hat in the ring, and Justice’s past as a Democrat has left some Republicans suspicious of his bona fides. Democratic groups could intervene in a primary to amplify critical statements Justice made of Trump, as well, in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“I’ma be anxious just to watch between now and the Republican primary,” Manchin said. “That’s going to be exciting, so let’s enjoy that one.”

But Daines suggested Manchin will lose no matter what Republican he goes up against.

“West Virginia has only gotten redder since the last time Joe Manchin ran,” Daines said. “What’s happening here in Washington is the Senate Democrats keep pushing further and further left.”

Manchin is aware he would face a tough race as a Democrat in a state that has gotten redder and redder in recent years.

“Joe knows it’ll be a race for his life if Joe decides to run,” Langone said. “I’ve heard him talk wistfully about going home, spending time with his neighbors and friends. At some point you’ve got to smell the flowers.”

And although Manchin feels as though he doesn’t fit into the Democratic Party, he says he has no plans to switch parties. His colleague Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) made waves in December when she announced she was leaving the Democratic Party and registering as an independent. (Her decision has thrown the future of her Senate seat into question but did not affect the makeup of the Senate, where she remains aligned with Democrats for committee purposes.)

“I have a ‘D’ by my name being how I was raised to the throwback of my grandfather who appreciated Roosevelt,” Manchin said. “I’m Catholic, so what can I say? We hang in there. We take a licking and keep on ticking.”

If Manchin does seek reelection, he is likely to enjoy the backing of some of his moderate Republican colleagues, including Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who have both said they would probably endorse him.

“I’ve been here long enough, and these are a lot of my good friends on both sides,” Manchin said. “I have Republican friends rooting for me, too, because they know they can work with me.”