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Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) flirtation with a third-party presidential bid after announcing his upcoming retirement from the Senate is sparking anxiety among Democratic senators who warn that Manchin would make a big mistake if he challenges President Biden.
Democratic lawmakers say that if Manchin runs for president as an independent, it will hurt Biden’s reelection chances and could result in what they view as the nightmare scenario of electing Donald Trump to a second White House term.
Democratic senators were less concerned about a potential Manchin presidential run a few months ago, when they thought he was still likely to run for another Senate term.
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Since then, Biden’s polling numbers have gotten worse in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up with Trump, who faces 91 felony charges, and Manchin has announced he will retire from the Senate after next year.
“I think it would be very, very unfortunate if Joe Manchin decided to do that,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said of a possible Manchin presidential run.
“I know he’s a supporter of President Biden and has been an important person here in the U.S. Senate in terms of getting things done. And he knows that if he were to step in [to the race] that it would make it much more likely Donald Trump would be president again, and I know Joe Manchin doesn’t want that,” Stabenow said.
Manchin, however, last week didn’t rule out the possibility of running for president on the No Labels ticket or another independent platform, telling CBS News that he has “plenty of time” to make a decision.
And he rejected fears voiced by other Democrats that he would sink Biden’s reelection if he throws his hat into the ring.
“I don’t buy that scenario,” Manchin told CBS’s Norah O’Donnell. “I’ve heard that. And — and I wouldn’t buy that scenario, because if you look back in history, how things have played out, I don’t think that they thought Ross Perot would elect Bill Clinton,” referring to three-way presidential election race in 1992.
Manchin told NBC’s “Meet the Press” host Kristen Welker that he would “absolutely” consider a run for president.
“I will do anything I can to help my country,” he said.
Manchin has argued during much of Biden’s presidency that national politics have become too polarized and that millions of voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum don’t have enough of a voice in Washington.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure, to mobilize that moderate, sensible, common-sense middle,” he pledged.
Jonathan Kott, a Democratic strategist and former Manchin adviser, said the senator’s musings about running for president should be taken seriously.
“I always take Joe Manchin at his word. I think the first thing he’s going to do is go around the country, see if he can mobilize what he thinks is a moderate majority of voters, people who want their government to get stuff done and not the people who focus on the fighting of the extremes of each party,” he said.
Kott said Manchin is “going to spend time talking to voters to see if there’s an appetite” for his brand of centrism.
Manchin’s recent statements have Democratic colleagues jittery that he could indeed decide to challenge Biden, even though they and most political experts say the West Virginia senator wouldn’t have any realistic chance of winning the presidency himself.
“My reaction is disappointment, deep disappointment,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “At his core, I think Joe Manchin is a Democrat and believes in Democratic values and principles. I’m deeply disappointed that he is still even talking about a possible run that would undermine Joe Biden.
“The simple stark fact is that a Manchin run for president would undercut Joe Biden,” he said.
Blumenthal warned that a second Trump term would be a catastrophe for the country.
“The prospect of a Donald Trump presidency is more frightening to me than any other political event in my lifetime. I think it’s a real prospect of the United States turning its back on democracy if he is elected president,” he said.
Manchin has increasingly voiced his frustrations with Biden over the past year-and-a-half and pointedly declined to endorse him for a second term.
“If Joe Biden runs again and he is the Democratic nominee, depending on who the Republican nominee is, we will just have to wait and see,” he told Chris Cuomo on NewsNation’s “CUOMO.”
Manchin earlier this year accused Biden of showing a “deficiency of leadership” for letting more than two months pass between meetings with then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) while the nation was facing a potential default because of the expiration of the debt limit.
Some Democratic strategists argue Manchin could pull votes away from Trump in a three-way race, but they acknowledge the 2024 presidential race will be so close that it’s hard to predict the outcome.
“He could swing that race in one direction or the other,” said Steve Jarding, a strategist who has worked for various Democratic senators with presidential ambitions.
Jarding noted that one major difference between 2024 and 1992, the last time a third-party presidential candidate had a major impact on a race for the White House, is that this year’s leading candidates, Biden and Trump, are both highly unpopular.
“If there’s a significant portion of Americans that were either going to stay home … or want to take their frustration out, [Manchin] could get votes,” he said.
But he predicted Manchin won’t win a single electoral vote, just as Perot failed to do 30 years ago.
“He comes from a small state. He’ll get exposed,” he said, explaining that if Manchin gains traction in the race, he’ll face an barrage of investigations and negative advertising that will dig into his personal business dealings.
“When either Trump or Biden see he’s hurting them more than the other side, they’ll take him down; they’ll go after him,” Jarding said.
“And it’s hard running in a third party. It’s hard to get on the ballot, it’s hard to get traction, because nobody thinks he can win,” he added. “He would face very strong headwinds, so I don’t see how he could even come close to winning a state.
“He easily could hurt Biden more than Trump, but because both [Biden and Trump] are so disliked by a significant portion of the voting population, I’m not sure of that,” he said.