Curtis Tate Published

W.Va.’s 2024 U.S. Senate Race: Justice Is In, But What About Manchin?

Man seated behind a small table with a bulldog in a chair beside him.
Gov. Jim Justice with Babydog.
WV Governor's Office

It is still a year away, but already, West Virginia’s U.S. Senate election is set to be one of the most competitive and most watched in the country. 

To get an idea of how it might shape up, Curtis Tate spoke with Kyle Kondik, communications director for the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He’s also managing editor of its widely read newsletter, Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tate: What do you think Sen. Joe Manchin will do now that Gov. Jim Justice is in the race?

Kondik: I always hesitate to try to prognosticate how someone’s going to make a reelection decision, because at the end of the day, only he knows exactly what he is thinking. I think he’s certainly taking steps to allow himself to run for reelection again. But I think it’s an open question. He has suggested that decision might not come until December. So I guess it could happen at any time, while it might just actually wait until then.

From Democrats’ perspective, it’s not like there’s really anyone waiting in the wings who can replace Manchin as a credible candidate. Maybe the Democrats would be able to run someone with some name ID or something, but the Democratic bench in West Virginia has been completely wiped out. If you believe that Manchin, even if he runs, is an underdog – and that’s how I feel about it – if Manchin doesn’t run, it’s probably a runaway for whoever the Republican nominee is.

Tate: Is it a foregone conclusion that Justice will be the Republican nominee, over Rep. Alex Mooney?

Kondik: I don’t know if it’s a foregone conclusion. Republican primary electorates sometimes will go with someone who is more ideological, who is able to run them to the right of the other alternative. I will say that Jim Justice seems like a pretty popular governor. A lot of national Republicans really like Jim Justice and hope he’s the nominee.

I think he’d be a strong nominee, although I also think that Mooney would be capable of winning the seat, too, even though I think if you’re Joe Manchin, you’d certainly rather run against Mooney. But do I think Justice is favored? I think that recent polling has sort of suggested that, what we have out there publicly, but I think it’s still something of an open question anyway.

Tate: Who will Donald Trump endorse, Mooney or Justice? Or will he sit this one out?

Kondik: We’ll see if Trump intervenes in the race. Maybe he just stays out of it. But I think Mooney needs Trump’s endorsement more than Justice does. And it’s not like Trump never loses in a primary, but his candidates often do win. So we’ll have to see how that develops. But I don’t necessarily think that you can really point to anything in the past to predict what Trump’s gonna do. Just because Trump endorsed Mooney before, doesn’t mean he’s gonna endorse him now, because he’s got a good connection and relationship with Justice, as far as I know.

Tate: If Justice were to get elected to the Senate, he’d go right to the bottom of the heap in seniority. Do you think he’s considered that?

Kondik: There are a lot of governors who go on to become senators who then make it very publicly known that they preferred being governor. I can imagine that happening with Justice if, in fact, he gets elected. Manchin himself is like that. He’s mooted coming back to West Virginia and running for governor, although I believe he’s ruled that out and in a 2024 context. [Sen.] Mark Warner in neighboring Virginia has spoken wistfully of his time as governor compared to his time in the U.S. Senate. There really are tons of other examples. 

What Justice is trying to do is very common as a sitting or former governor, running for the U.S. Senate, but it’s pretty rare to hear people who have served in both roles, saying that they prefer being a senator. Most of these folks prefer being governor. But often there’s a time limit with being a governor. You’re forced to try to figure out something else to do, which is what’s happening with Justice here. 

Tate: With Senate control on the line next year, how does that affect Manchin’s working relationship with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, or for that matter, senators from any state with a split delegation?

Kondik: Broadly speaking, some of the themes of collegiality have eroded over time, but the senators can still work together on certain things, even as the campaign is going on. And again, this does happen pretty often, although there aren’t that many states now that have split Senate delegations. There are only five if you include Kyrsten Sinema, Bernie Sanders and Angus King, if you consider them Democrats as opposed to independents.

There are only five split Senate delegations: West Virginia, Montana, and Ohio, and then Wisconsin and Maine. Part of what’s going on here is there are fewer and fewer split party Senate delegations. If Republicans get their way, there are gonna be even fewer in 2024, if they aggressively try to flip Montana, Ohio and West Virginia, the three remaining Democrats in Trump-won states.

Tate: How would you rate Manchin’s chances if he decides to run?

Kondik: I would be surprised if Mancin got reelected. The trends are set. Manchin is such an outlier.Trump won his state by roughly 40 points. No other senator holds a state that’s even half as hostile as West Virginia is.

The next on the list is [Jon] Tester. Trump won Montana by 16 and a half points. In the House, the worst district that anyone holds, in terms of how it voted for president, the most lopsided against the party of the member who holds that house seat, it’s about 15 points.

Manchin is a real outlier now, and generally what happens with outliers is eventually they go away. That’s not to say Manchin is guaranteed to lose, but I do think he’s an underdog and that’s reflected in our ratings. We started West Virginia as ‘leans Republican,’ and if Manchin were to retire, we’d move it to ‘safe Republican.’ I don’t think there’s any path for Democrats to hold it without Manchin.