West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D) on Thursday made official what his colleagues had privately suspected for months, that he won’t be returning to Washington as a senator in 2025, putting Democrats on an uphill path to keeping their Senate majority in next year’s election.
The news that Manchin will walk away from the Senate at the end of next year landed on Senate Democrats with a thud, killing the giddy buzz they were feeling after winning key state races in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia on Tuesday.
A hallmark of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) tenure as Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist has been to persuade incumbents to run for reelection in tough races.
Manchin’s announcement means Democrats will have to win seven competitive races in Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin — all Republican-leaning or swing states — to keep control of the Senate.
While Manchin’s retirement isn’t a complete surprise for Democrats, it came sooner than many had expected. He previously said he wouldn’t make a decision until the end of the year and even suggested to reporters as he was leaving the Capitol Thursday that he was still wrestling with the decision.
The announcement underscores what many Democrats know, which is that President Biden’s low job approval rating and the lack of enthusiasm even among Democrats for a second Biden term is a headwind for vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
A New York Times/Siena College poll published Sunday showed former President Trump leading Biden in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada.
Manchin declared confidently in April that he would “win any race I enter.” But by mid-November, it had become increasingly clear that even he probably couldn’t win in West Virginia against popular Republican Gov. Jim Justice (R), the likely Senate GOP nominee.
Democrats don’t have any clear opportunities to flip Republican seats. The most vulnerable Republican incumbents, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.), are favored by prognosticators to win their reelections.
One Democratic senator who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the tough odds that Democrats face in their fight to keep their Senate majority pointed to Montana, Ohio and Arizona as now the hardest Democratic-controlled seats to defend.
And the lawmaker warned that Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which are all represented by Democrats, won’t be easy wins.
“You look at three very difficult states in Arizona, Montana, and Ohio and then four pure purple states in Nevada, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The odds of winning all seven of those are really low but we have to try,” the senator said, warning that if President Biden wins reelection to a second term and Republicans win control of the Senate “not a single judge will get confirmed” and “the executive nominees will be tortured.”
“And then what if Biden doesn’t win? Then we really need a Senate that serves as a bulwark.” the lawmaker warned. “They’re going to [nominate] every single crazy right-wing nutcase from the Federalist Society.”
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who left the Democratic Party in December to become an independent, is still counted as part of the Senate Democrats’ 51-seat majority, even though she no longer attends caucus meetings.
She has yet to say whether she will run for reelection and faces a likely three-way general election battle against Republican Kari Lake and progressive Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego (Ariz.).
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he wasn’t surprised by Manchin’s decision, a view echoed by other Democrats.
“I thought he would run again months ago but as the time dragged out I guess I started to hear more and more people say, ‘He’s probably not going to run.’ And I was like, ‘I hope he will, I wish he will,’ but I guess I wasn’t surprised,” he said.
Kaine acknowledged it’s “completely” tougher to keep Manchin’s seat in Democratic hands without the three-term veteran senator running for reelection.
“One of the reasons I suspect that Joe’s not running, I’m sure he’s polling, he’s looking at what the chances are,” he added.
Kaine acknowledged that Senate Democrats face a tough battle to keep their majority but insisted they still have a real chance.
He pointed out that political handicappers predicted Democrats would lose the Senate in the 2022 midterm election and they instead expanded their majority to 51 seats.
“We knew it was going to be tough, it’s going to be tough. People counted us in 2022 and they were wrong,” he said.
He also noted that political handicappers initially didn’t think Democrats would do well in the 2023 Virginia state legislative races and the party kept its state Senate majority and won control of the House of Delegates.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said “it’s better for America if we have a party in charge that cares about health care, housing and education and civil rights and climate.”
“If we have one less person on the team that hurts,” he said.
Asked if Manchin’s retirement makes it tougher to keep control of the Senate, Merkley acknowledged: “Yes, it does.”
Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who won a hard-fought and closely decided Senate race in Pennsylvania last year, said Manchin’s announcement was not a big surprise, given his poor polling numbers.
“It’s obvious,” he said. “I think everyone — being honest — was already building that into the stock price for while.”
“Everyone knows West Virginia is the reddest state of all of them, so it’s not a surprise,” he said.
But Fetterman said he feels “really great” about Democrats winning in Pennsylvania, Montana, Ohio, Arizona and other battlegrounds.
A Democratic strategist insisted that Democrats have a realistic chance of beating Cruz and Scott in Texas and Florida, noting that both Republican senators narrowly won election in 2018.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) came within 2 points of beating Cruz in 2018 while Scott won his seat with 50.06 percent of the vote.
Even so, the nonpartisan rates the Texas and Florida Senate races as “likely R” wins.
Republicans on Thursday hailed Manchin’s retirement as a big political development and argued they are now, in essence, only one seat away from winning back the Senate majority, since West Virginia is a heavily Republican-leaning state.
A Senate Republican aide called Manchin’s announcement a “huge” development that puts Republicans on the cusp of controlling the upper chamber.
“We head into the election with a 50-50 Senate,” the source said.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Steve Daines (R-Mont.) on Thursday was ready to put Manchin’s West Virginia seat in the Republican win column.
“We like our odds in West Virginia,” he said with a heavy dose of understatement.
Former President Trump racked up some of his biggest margins of victory in West Virginia, winning the state with 68 percent of the vote in 2016 and 69 percent in 2020.
A Senate Republican strategist said that taking Manchin’s seat out of the field of competitive races will put more pressure on other vulnerable incumbents, especially Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
“It’s going to make Montana a lot more expensive very quickly,” said the strategist, who said that Democrats are already increasing their independent-expenditure buy in the state.
Tester launched his first campaign television ad in Montana this week, making a six-figure buy on a spot that highlights his biography as a third-generation farmer who drives a beat-up pick-up truck with a gun rack in the cab.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director David Bergstein said Democrats still have “multiple pathways to protect and strengthen our Senate majority” and are in a strong position.
“In addition to defending our battle-tested incumbents, we’ve already expanded the battleground map to Texas and Florida, where formidable Democratic candidates are out-raising unpopular Republican incumbents,” he said.
Despite the optimistic talk from the Senate Democratic campaign arm, Democratic senators themselves expressed disappointment with Manchin’s decision.
“I’m sad he’s not running again,” Kaine said, noting that he and Manchin had their policy differences, notably over approval of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline that will pump natural gas across West Virginia and Virginia.
Manchin championed the project while Kaine fiercely opposed Congress intervening in the regulatory and legal process to fast-track its approval.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) even joked that he would challenge Manchin to a wrestling match and that stakes would be Manchin’s continued service in the Senate.
“I am going to challenge him to a fight and … whoever wins a wrestling match should have their will be done,” he jested about literally twisting Manchin’s arm to get him to run again.