AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
After a high-profile betrayal by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last year, amid a widening rift with President Joe Biden, and facing a daunting Republican challenger next fall, there are growing signs that West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe Manchin could have his sights set on a third-party presidential bid in 2024.
In a telling interview earlier this week, Manchin was careful to not rule out a run for the White House next year. “I have a lot of gas in the tank still left,” the 75-year-old said. “I’m more concerned about my country than I’ve ever been, and our standing in the world.”
Those comments weren’t the first time Manchin explicitly left open the possibility of a 2024 presidential run. In a March appearance on CBS News, Manchin said “everything’s on the table” when asked about his interest in running. “I’ve got plenty of time to make up my mind,” he continued. Previously, Manchin has said he won’t officially announce a decision about his re-election bid until at least December.
Manchin also met with a group of Iowa business leaders in Washington last week – a common activity for presidential hopefuls. In a 30-minute speech, Manchin described himself as “fiscally responsible and socially compassionate,” raising speculation among beltway insiders that the West Virginia Democrat, who has long courted a reputation as a moderate, could be charting a course to run as a third-party candidate.
Leaked audio this month from a call hosted by No Labels, a third-party group aiming to field a “centrist” in 2024, appears to support that theory. During the call, Manchin makes a surprise appearance, bashing both parties and implicitly endorsing the idea of a third-party candidate.
“The hope is to keep the country that we have, and you cannot do that by forcing the extreme sides on both parties,” Manchin says. “There’s enough people like you that care about our country, and not this political system that we have that’s not serving anybody.”
No Labels is funded by several billionaire donors, meaning that their nominee could potentially overcome the fundraising hurdle that typically sinks most third-party candidates. The group has already pledged $70 million to support a “unity ticket” that many believe could feature Manchin or another perceived “centrist” such as former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan at the top.
Manchin has not minced words when it comes to venting his frustrations with his Democrat colleagues – and with President Joe Biden in particular. In a Fox News appearance earlier this year, Manchin even declined to describe himself as a Democrat, saying instead, “I’m an American through and through.”
In March, Manchin called the Biden administration’s priorities “absolutely infuriating.” Manchin also blasted Biden’s mishandling of classified documents as “irresponsible,” and said Biden’s comments about closing coal power plants were “outrageous and divorced from reality.”
More recently, Manchin has criticized the president for his handling of debt ceiling negotiations, accusing him of placing an “ideological agenda” above the interests of the American people.
While Manchin was careful to hedge his praise for Biden from the moment Biden took office – a political necessity given that Trump won West Virginia by 39 points in 2020 – he became more explicitly critical of the president and his fellow Senate Democrats following passage of the so-called “Inflation Reduction Act” last year.
In a move that shocked official Washington, Manchin effectively killed Biden’s Build Back Better plan in December 2021. However, the following summer, Manchin cut a deal with Schumer and Biden on a bill that would eventually become the Inflation Reduction Act.
In exchange for Manchin’s support on the IRA’s climate subsidies, Schumer pledged to introduce and pass permitting reform legislation (which would significantly aid in ramping up domestic energy production) “before the end of the fiscal year.” But as that deadline approached, it became clear Schumer had no intention of bringing any such legislation up for a vote, breaking his promise to Manchin.
Since then, Manchin has been vocally critical of the IRA – a law he played a significant role in writing and passing. He has even threatened to work with Republicans to repeal the legislation (something which has no prospect of happening given Schumer’s control of the Senate), and has vowed to block all of Biden’s EPA nominees until the agency rolls back new emissions regulations.
However, Manchin has still received blowback at home for his support of the vast majority of Biden’s agenda, imperiling his re-election chances. 55 percent of West Virginia voters disapprove of Manchin, making him one of the most unpopular members of the Senate. Facing a challenge from popular Republican Governor Jim Justice next fall, a third-party presidential bid may in fact seem like a better option for Manchin than trying his luck again as a Democrat in a deep red state.
Manchin has some compelling reasons to believe he has a shot at winning, too.
With just 47 percent of self-identified Democrats saying they want Biden to run again in 2024, a third-party candidate with Democrat bona fides could be attractive to large swaths of Democrat voters. Despite his current polling woes, Manchin has nonetheless managed to win multiple elections in West Virginia, suggesting that he has some appeal among Republicans. It is not unreasonable for Manchin to believe he has a shot at cobbling together enough disaffected Democrats and Republicans to give him a chance in a three-way general election.
With no love lost between Manchin and Biden, Manchin may also be unconcerned about playing spoiler and allowing the Republican nominee – at this point likely Donald Trump – to win. Manchin has been just as critical of Biden as he was of Trump, and arguably had a better working relationship with Trump than he does with Biden.
To be sure, any third-party candidate faces a significant challenge in a political system that has been dominated by two major parties virtually since its inception. Manchin’s record is also far from as “centrist” as he would like Americans to believe; in this Senate term alone, he has provided a pivotal vote for almost every priority of Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Joe Biden. But his entry into the presidential contest would undoubtedly be a major factor in what is shaping up to be another closely fought race.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio.