When I first heard that Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) had left the Democratic Party and was now an independent, I have to admit that I was surprised, because I would have expected Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) to be more likely to defect than Sinema.
Republicans have been trying to persuade Manchin to switch parties for some time. Manchin said last year that he is approached daily about switching parties and that it would certainly be “easier” to join the GOP than to remain a Democrat.
“It would be much easier, my goodness,” Manchin said. “But is that the purpose of being involved in public service, because it’s easy?”
He also claimed that he hadn’t really thought much about switching parties. “I don’t think the Rs are going to be any more happy with me than Ds are right now,” which, of course, is a valid point. Despite his reputation for being a moderate, he votes with Joe Biden the vast majority of the time. Still, like Sinema, defecting from the Democratic Party might be his best chance at political survival.
Sinema’s change in registration liberates her from participating in a Democratic primary in 2024, which party activists have promised to put up a more reliable left-wing challenger. Like Sinema, Manchin is also up for reelection in 2024. In the event that a more progressive Democrat chooses to challenge Manchin, even if he won the primary, his chances of winning in the general election against the right GOP candidate are slim. His margins of victory have been increasingly slimmer. In 2012, Manchin won his election by 24 points, but in 2018, Manchin won reelection with a razor-thin victory over his Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey, receiving 49.7% of the vote to Morrisey’s 46.2%.
In 2020, Trump won West Virginia 68.6% to Joe Biden’s 29.7%, so, politically speaking, Manchin is going nowhere as a Democrat, and he’d be far more likely to survive in 2024 as a Republican. But clearly, his moment to do that has passed, and he now ranks as one of the nation’s most unpopular senators.
Had he switched to the GOP a year ago, it would have changed the balance of power in the Senate, effectively ended Joe Biden’s radical legislative agenda, won over Republican voters, and potentially saved his career. He could have even made a deal with the West Virginia Republican Party to clear a path for him to win the GOP nomination without any challengers. Even if his record isn’t the most conservative, had he made the switch then, it would have given him time to prove himself to the voters of his state that he truly represents their interests. Doing so now would look like an act of desperation to save his political career — like Sinema.
Manchin’s lack of action tells me not only will he likely remain a Democrat, but he’s probably not going to seek reelection. What other conclusion is there? He’d likely sooner retire as a “man of principle” than face inevitable defeat. He’s not nearly as popular in his state as Sen. Joe Lieberman was when he lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut in 2006 but won the general election as an independent. West Virginia is far redder than Arizona and looks like a surefire pickup for the GOP in 2024. By not acting sooner, Manchin sealed his fate; he won’t be in the Senate in 2025 — the question is how he’ll go.