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Manchin’s Declaration of Independence

I’m a news reporter, which means that rumors make me uncomfortable. I don’t usually report rumors. I like to have hard information in the form of documents and multiple sources, including sources willing to go on the record.

This is why I have largely avoided the recent rumors being spread over the last couple of weeks about an alleged plan by some moderate Republicans and Democrats in West Virginia to pressure Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, the Democratic candidate for governor, to drop out of the race and be replaced by none other than outgoing U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin.

In fact, the only time I’ve written about this rumor was when I and several reporters had the opportunity during the recent special legislative session to ask Williams about it. Williams made it pretty clear he had no intentions to drop out and that he has spoken frequently with Manchin, received donations from Manchin and had Manchin’s support.

I had first seen the rumor pop up on social media from Clarksburg Exponent Telegram Publisher Andy Kniceley. My friend Hoppy Kercheval wrote a column calling it “more than just a rumor” and citing three sources. My friend and WCHS radio host Dave Allen said “a heck of a lot of Republicans and some Dems” wanted this switch-out.

I have no doubt that someone or multiple someones were pushing this scenario, but I’ve yet to get anyone, Republican or Democrat, to go on the record to say they support it, or even talk to me on background to confirm there is a movement for this. And now it doesn’t even matter since Manchin (literally as I was writing this column Friday) has switched his registration from Democratic to no party, making him an independent.

All of this is in the wake of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey winning a plurality of voters in the May Republican primary for governor in a four-person race. (Sorry Mitch Roberts and Kevin Christian, but you both barely registered 1% of votes cast.)

No doubt there are still some hurt feelings among supporters of former lawmaker Moore Capito, Huntington businessman Chris Miller and Secretary of State Mac Warner. However, I also suspect come November most of those voters will be there for Morrisey.

The whole thing smacks of 1996 and the “Democrats for Underwood” effort that arose after Manchin was defeated in the Democratic primary for governor by Charlotte Pritt. It is well known that the Manchin machine was behind the effort to get former Republican governor Cecil Underwood elected that year. This also smacks a little bit of 2018 when Manchin beat Morrisey by three points in the U.S. Senate race even with then-President Donald Trump stumping for Morrisey.

But this isn’t 1996, and it is not 2018. The state had a strong Democratic majority in 1996, but those voters were just starting to turn more moderate/conservative at the time. Pritt was far to the left of Manchin. Democratic primary voters may have chosen Pritt, but the general election voters chose Underwood.

As for the 2018 scenario, Manchin barely won reelection over Morrisey. The majority of voters in the state were still registered with the Democratic Party even as they were voting for more Republicans. Manchin and State Treasurer John Perdue were the last two statewide elected Democrats at the time. And it was a midterm election with Trump not on the ballot.

I’m sure someone will start a “Republicans for Williams” campaign, but I think that play can only work once. And unlike 2018, Trump will be at the top of the ballot in West Virginia — convicted felon or not — and he still enjoys immense support in the state. With both Trump and Governor and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jim Justice at the top of the ticket, expect turnout in November to be high and benefit down-ballot Republicans like Morrisey, who is also now endorsed by Trump.

While there are several hurdles to a switch-Williams-for-Manchin plan, the only hurdle that matters is that Williams doesn’t want to drop out of the race. And with Manchin switching from D-Ƶ. to I-Ƶ., we can close the book on that rumor. But now cue the rumor that Manchin may run for either governor or his current Senate seat as an independent.

By making his party switch on Friday, Manchin got out ahead of a deadline that prohibits party switches for the purposes of political races 60 days prior to a certificate of candidacy deadline, which is Thursday, Aug. 1, making the party switch deadline June 1. Between now and then, Manchin could start collecting signatures equal to 1% of the votes cast in the most recent election for governor or U.S. Senate to qualify as an independent candidate for the November ballot.

Now, do I think he will do that? I’m not going to say outright no. But he is already on the record for supporting Williams for governor. And he endorsed Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott during the Democratic U.S. Senate primary and supported him financially. But Manchin sure does like attention, and with this 60-day window he has, we in the media now have to pay attention to him.

He did this in 2018 when he said the Senate “sucks” and left media wondering if he would run again. He did this in 2020 when he kept hinting at a run for governor only to decide not to at the last minute. He did this in 2023 when kept teasing a decision on the Senate run delaying a decision until the end of the year. And he did it in the early months of 2024 with a will he/won’t he run for president.

As for the first rumor, I have no idea what group of Republicans was spreading that. A highly placed source in Capito world said it wasn’t coming from them. But the question to ask is who would suffer the most from a possible Morrisey win in November. I’m here to tell you, it’s not a Republican. It’s someone who could lose access to the governor’s office for the first time since before 2005.


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