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Joe Manchin is not a candidate five months before the election. But he still has time to change his mind

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It seems like every election cycle, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin tries to find the best fit for himself, dragging both sides of the political aisle — and an entire home state electorate — into a seesaw battle. to ride.

Five months before the general election, he is still not a candidate for any office, but he has hitched the gambling wagon one more time. And there is still time, even if it is shrinking, to think about possible runs for governor, Senate or even the US presidency.

Having recently switched his party affiliation from Democratic to independent, the 76-year-old Manchin is content to leave the Senate in January “and be able to live a more normal life, if you will.”

But in true Manchin fashion, he leaves the gate open just a crack.

“Never say never, because you never know,” he said.

The bumpy path he has chosen, while not necessarily surprising, has voters who haven’t completely lost interest trying to re-figure out where Manchin is going. One who has tried to keep up, retired West Virginia Wesleyan political history professor Robert Rupp, brings his own metaphor to the discussion.

“This is a whirling dervish,” Rupp said.

Career-changing moves for Manchin have come in droves lately.

Manchin announced his switch to party registration on June 1, saying he wanted to “continue fighting for America’s sensible majority.” Manchin had already thought about it last August.

In November, Manchin announced he would not run for re-election as a Democrat.

Then in December at a roast in Washington, Manchin teased a possible third-party candidate for the White House, joking that the nation could use someone slightly younger than the leading contenders. But in February, Manchin announced he would not run for president because he did not want to be a “spoiler.”

Manchin had served in the Senate since 2010, when he won a special election following the death of Robert C. Byrd during Manchin’s second term as governor. He has remained there ever since, although he considered returning home to run for governor again in 2016. Instead, he endorsed Jim Justice, who won as a Democrat before switching to the Republican Party months after taking office.

In 2019, instead of running for governor again in the 2020 elections and running against Justice, who had become a rival, Manchin decided to remain a senator. That decision proved fruitful as he emerged as a pivotal vote and indispensable dealmaker for Democrats in the closely divided Senate. Major initiatives by the Biden administration in energy and infrastructure would likely not have happened without his support.

When Manchin switched sides last month, ears perked up and whispered questions began to circulate: What is he up to next? The logistics of various possible paths forward offered a glimpse of possible answers.

When he registered as an independent, Manchin in West Virginia — narrowly — met a deadline for candidates to declare their political affiliation 60 days before the Aug. 1 deadline for this year’s elections. That has fueled speculation that he may decide to seek a third term as governor, an office where he was popular. He received almost 64% of the votes to win his first term in 2004 and 70% of the votes to win a second term in 2008.

West Virginia has since become heavily Republican. Former President Donald Trump won the state overwhelmingly in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Both chambers of the state legislature now have Republican Party supermajorities. About 40% of registered voters are Republicans, compared to 30% of Democrats and about 25% who have no party affiliation.

As Manchin attempts to return to the governor’s office, he will face an election rematch with Republican Patrick Morrisey and a tough campaign battle with Democrat Steve Williams, the mayor of Huntington and the party’s chosen candidate. In the 2018 U.S. Senate race, Manchin defeated Morrisey by just over 3 percentage points. In late May, Manchin publicly said he would not run for governor and would support Williams.

In addition to reversing course on that statement, Manchin would once again have to deal with the continued popularity in West Virginia of Trump, whose name will appear at the top of the West Virginia ballot. Morrisey, the state’s attorney general, is a staunch supporter of Trump, who became popular in Appalachia as he made broad promises to put miners back to work amid the industry’s bleak economic outlook.

Trump did not bring back the industry. The number of coal sector jobs in West Virginia fell from 11,561 at the start of his presidency to 11,418 at the end of 2021, slowing but not stopping the coal sector’s precipitous decline. Yet Manchin and Democrats were often targeted as enemies of coal in a state where coal was still widely seen as a cornerstone of the economy.

Despite a long line of legendary politicians in the nation’s history, only two West Virginia governors have been elected to three terms: Republican Boog. A. Moore Jr. in 1968, 1972 and 1984, and Republican Arthur Boreman during the state’s infancy in 1863, 1864 and 1866.

Without Manchin in the Senate race, Republicans exude confidence that Justice can take over his seat in West Virginia. If all other races across the country were to stick with their current parties, that alone would be enough to regain the majority next year. And Democrats are defending 23 seats, five of which are held by independents, compared to just 10 seats for Republicans.

A decision by Manchin to reenter the race as an independent would also be tricky because it would set up a showdown against both Judge and Democrat Glenn Elliott, who supported Manchin in the May primary.

Justice and Manchin fell out after Justice switched parties eight months into his first term as governor in 2017. Justice made that announcement on stage with Trump at a rally in Huntington. Justice, a wealthy businessman who owns several coal mines, is a staunch supporter of Trump and has won his support.

After Manchin became an independent, Elliott said on X, formerly Twitter, that he had no reason to believe Manchin had any interest in the Senate race.

A Senate race for Manchin could be the toughest in four decades in state politics — and the most expensive. Manchin has raised $11.7 million with $8.5 million cash, compared to $3 million raised with $931,000 cash for Justice, and $125,000 raised with $65,000 cash for Elliott, according to the latest Federal Election Commission data.

In April, the leadership of No Labels, a national bipartisan organization, ended its search for a presidential candidate. Manchin was seen as one of the most high-profile candidates to tap into widespread dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden and Trump.

If Manchin were to use his independent status to change course again and become an independent presidential candidate, he would have to hurry. He has already missed the filing deadline for the general election in seven states, and June and July deadlines are looming in 10 others, according to the Federal Election Commission.

There is another option lurking in the shadows as the senator considers his future. In Morgantown, West Virginia University President Gordon Gee plans to retire when his contract expires next June. The search for his replacement is in its early stages.

Manchin, a WVU graduate, has not responded to speculation that he might be interested in Gee’s job. A spokeswoman avoided questions about this last year. But in the kind of language Manchin clearly prefers to see as others speculate about his path forward, the Dominion Post reported that the university said its search will yield “no preconceived results or candidates.”

Associated Press reporter Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington contributed to this report.

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