By Moira Warburton and Makini Brice
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a maverick who has often bucked party leadership in the past two years, said on Thursday that he will not seek re-election, hurting Democrats’ chance of defending their thin Senate majority in the 2024 election.
“I will not be running for re-election to the United States Senate, but what I will be doing is traveling the country and speaking out to see if there is an interest in creating a movement to mobilize the middle and bring Americans together,” Manchin said in a statement.
The move by the 76-year-old lawmaker will make it very difficult for Democrats to defend his West Virginia seat. Republicans hold the governor’s office and the rest of the congressional delegation in a state that Republican Donald Trump won by a wide 69-30% margin over Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
“We like our odds in West Virginia,” Senator Steve Daines, the head of Republican senators’ campaign arm, said in a statement.
Manchin earlier this year flirted publicly with leaving the Democratic Party, and appeared in July at an event with the “No Labels” group, where he discussed the possibility of having a third-party candidate run for president in 2024.
Polling shows dissatisfaction with the current leading White House candidates, incumbent Biden and Republican frontrunner Trump. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in August found 8% of respondents said they would vote for Manchin if he ran for president as an independent against Biden and Trump.
“We will make a decision by early 2024 about whether we will nominate a Unity presidential ticket and who will be on it,” No Labels said in a statement.
Manchin’s departure will also raise the stakes for Democrats of several other Senate races including in Republican-leaning Montana and Ohio and highly competitive Pennsylvania and Arizona as they defend a 51-49 majority.
Democrats currently hold more of the seats that are up for election than do Republicans. Three seats held by Democrats are in states won by Trump in the 2020 election, while no Republican seats up for the election are in states where voters chose Biden.
David Bergstein, a spokesperson for the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said the party was confident in its chances of strengthening its majority.
Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic consultancy, said he thought Manchin would talk to people around the country about why the country needs moderation.
“I think he feels with justification that he’s got a voice that is unique and a message that resonates and so my hope is that he puts that to work behind the president,” Bennett said.
JUSTICE EYES SEAT
West Virginia’s Republican Governor, Jim Justice, has already launched a campaign for his party’s nomination for Senate. Justice was a Democrat when he was first elected governor in 2016, but a year into office he switched parties and went on to cruise to re-election, winning 65% of the vote in 2020. Trump has endorsed Justice.
Manchin, who took office in 2010, has been a key vote on every major piece of legislation of President Biden’s tenure, as a moderate representing an increasingly conservative state. His support was critical to passage of Biden’s sweeping $1 trillion infrastructure law, one of the president’s key domestic accomplishments.
Together with Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who switched her registration to independent from Democratic in December, Manchin has secured major concessions and scaling back of his party’s legislative goals, winning him applause from conservatives and condemnations from many fellow Democrats.
The two stood together in protecting the Senate’s filibuster rule, which require 60 of the chamber’s 100 members to agree on most legislation, in the face of intense opposition from their own party.
Manchin’s defense of the filibuster helped block Democrats’ hopes of passing bills to protect abortion rights after the Supreme Court last year overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that had established the nationwide right.
“What I’ve seen during my time in Washington is that every party in power will always want to exercise absolute power, absolutely,” Manchin wrote in an opinion column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, a West Virginia newspaper, in 2021.
The Senate has “evolved over time to make absolute power difficult while still delivering solutions to the issues facing our country and I believe that’s the Senate’s best quality,” he added.
Republican senators praised Manchin’s commitment to bipartisanship.
“I will miss this American patriot in the Senate. But our friendship and our commitment to American values will not end,” Republican Senator Mitt Romney, who is also not seeking re-election, wrote in a post on X.
Manchin won his last election with just 49.6% of the vote, 0.3 percentage points ahead of his Republican rival, in 2018, a year that opposition to Trump’s presidency allowed Democrats to make major gains in Congress.
Manchin has insisted that his only motivation is the coal-producing state of West Virginia and an eye on fiscal responsibility.
“I know our country isn’t as divided as Washington wants us to believe,” he said in Thursday’s statement. “We share common values of family, freedom, democracy, dignity and a belief that together we can overcome any challenge. We need to take back America and not let this divisive hatred further pull us apart.”
(Reporting by Moira Warburton, Jasper Ward, Makini Brice and Richard Cowan; additional reporting by Jason Lange and David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone, Alistair Bell and Daniel Wallis)