Senate Republicans on Thursday received a major boost in their quest to retake the majority when West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) officially threw his hat into the ring, likely giving the party its best opportunity to take down Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Justice announced his plans during a Thursday event at the Greenbrier, handing the party a top recruit in one of the preeminent 2024 contests. According to multiple Senate Republicans, the two-term governor is the key to defeating Manchin, who won a tough reelection bid in 2018 in a state that has grown increasingly red over the years.
“Everybody’s very excited about that prospect. He’s been looking at it for a while, and I think he brings a ton of support to the race. He’s well known by pretty much everybody in West Virginia and really well-liked, so it’s a big development and one we’re really excited about,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told The Hill.
Manchin has yet to announce his 2024 plans, but the GOP is making clear its preference for the term-limited governor over Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.), a conservative and pro-Trump lawmaker, in a possible general election fight against the incumbent Democrat, who would be seeking his third full term.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, hailed Justice as a “proven winner” who has fought for “conservative values” in the state, but he stopped short of issuing a formal endorsement. He also was quick to note to The Hill polls showing Justice’s prowess in both primary and general election surveys.
“He’s going to be a very strong candidate for the U.S. Senate,” Daines added.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is “going to be a very strong candidate for the U.S. Senate.” (Greg Nash)
The Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), a group run by allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said in a statement the sitting governor is “far and away the best candidate to take on and retire the sellout that Joe Manchin has sadly become.”
Justice also won the endorsement of Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who was present at his campaign announcement event.
“[He’s] very popular, very in tune to our state, and dedicated and still wanting to serve,” Capito said of Justice in an interview. “He’s a powerhouse.”
Meanwhile, other conservative groups like Club for Growth signaled ahead of Justice’s announcement they would back Mooney — setting up a potentially ugly primary battle. The group in a statement called Justice the “handpicked candidate” of McConnell.
“West Virginia voters want a principled conservative like Alex Mooney who will fight the out-of-control spending and woke policies coming from Washington,” said Club for Growth Action President David McIntosh.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito endorsed Justice at his campaign event and said “he’s a powerhouse.” (Greg Nash)
The Club has indicated it’s prepared to spend $10 million in support of Mooney, having already dropped dollars in the state.
According to a survey commissioned by SLF in February, Justice is the prohibitive favorite in the primary and the only prospective Republican candidate to notch more than 50 percent support in several hypothetical head-to-head matchups against Manchin.
While Mooney is the underdog, he has proven his mettle in recent years. Just last year, he defeated longtime Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) in a battle between former President Trump’s MAGA movement and the GOP establishment. He won that contest by nearly 19 percentage points.
Top Republicans still like Justice’s chances in a primary setting.
“We’ll see. I think Justice is ready for that,” Thune said of the looming primary battle. “He’s known statewide. Everything about him is pretty well-baked into the electorate. … He’s got a good record to run on, and I think he’s somebody that people in his state really relate to and like.”
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) addresses reporters after the weekly policy luncheon on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Greg Nash)
The West Virginia race will be among one of the most closely watched Senate races given the uncertainty of Manchin’s reelection plans. He’s among three Democrats situated in states that former President Trump won in 2020, with Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) being the other two.
Democrats have already started mentally preparing for the costly Senate battle ahead. But Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, saw the potentially competitive GOP primary as a boost for Democrats’ chances in the state.
“It’s going to be a contentious primary, very contentious there, and that’s going to make it easier for Joe Manchin to win reelection,” Peters told The Hill.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) suggested in a statement that the party would benefit from a primary that’s likely to leave at least one of the candidates bruised.
“West Virginia’s GOP Senate primary is going to be a nasty, messy and expensive fight, and whichever candidate manages to hobble out of their intraparty battle will be damaged and out of step with the voters who will decide the general election,” DSCC spokesperson Amanda Sherman Baity said.
The other looming question continues to center on Manchin, 75, and whether he will take the plunge and run for another term or not. He has told reporters that he will not decide until December. In his 2018 contest, he did not make his decision official until one day before the filing deadline.
The centrist Democrat said in a statement on Thursday that he “will win any race I enter,” in what many interpreted as a reference to a potential 2024 presidential bid.
Manchin has seemingly tried to shore up his right flank recently, having announced his support for a number of Republican-led resolutions to overturn rules authored by the Biden administration. He also said on Monday he would join with a GOP effort to overturn the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which he authored, if the administration does not implement the law properly.
Whether Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) will run for another term is still up in the air amid Jim Justice’s announcement on the Republican side. (Annabelle Gordon)
To Republicans, the comment was a clear sign that he views his support for the law as a liability back home.
“It’s a small state. People know their folks. But I think Joe really hurt himself with the IRA, and the numbers reflect that,” Thune said. “I think [with] the tilt of the state now, it’s going to be very hard with a viable Republican alternative to see a scenario where there’s a path forward for a Democrat, particularly if you’ve got some things that are kind of sticking to you, and I think that IRA’s going to stick.”
Capito, however, argued Manchin will nevertheless be “formidable.” Democrats are quick to highlight his 2018 victory only two years after Trump carried the state by 42 points.
“Joe Manchin is always there for his constituents. He has his finger on the pulse of West Virginia,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who ran the Senate Democratic campaign arm in 2018. “He’s got West Virginia DNA.”
“This is a guy who wakes up thinking about his constituents in West Virginia and goes to bed thinking about West Virginia,” he added.