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Sen. Joe Manchin leaves the Democratic Party and registers as independent

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has spent his entire decadeslong political career as a Democrat, said Friday he is leaving the party and registering as an independent, raising speculation about whether he may run for another Senate term or for governor this fall.

“To stay true to myself and remain committed to put country before party, I have decided to register as an independent with no party affiliation and continue to fight for America’s sensible majority,” Manchin said in a statement.

Manchin’s move was first reported by longtime West Virginia radio host Hoppy Kercheval. Despite his party change, Manchin will continue to caucus with Senate Democrats, his office said.

Last November, Manchin announced he would not seek a third term in 2024 but his decision to change parties will re-open questions about his political future.

The deadline for an independent to register to run for office in West Virginia this year is Aug. 1, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Manchin, 76, served as West Virginia governor from 2005 to 2010, when he won a special election to fill a Senate seat left vacant by the death of legendary Democrat Robert Byrd. Manchin won a full Senate term in 2012 and a second term in 2018. 

But he won that race over Republican state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey by a little more than 20,000 votes, or 3 percentage points, as the state shifted ruby red, propelled by Donald Trump’s rise in 2016. In 2020, Trump captured nearly 70% of the vote in West Virginia.

Earlier this month, current Gov. Jim Justice, backed by Trump, won the Republican nomination for Senate and had been favored to succeed Manchin in the fall. But Manchin’s surprise move could scramble that race if he decides to run for re-election as an independent.

A more likely scenario is that Manchin seeks his old job as governor —  a potential race that would pit him in a rematch with the GOP nominee, Morrisey, as well as against the Democratic nominee, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams.

If he is considering an independent bid for either office, Manchin had until June 1 to change his party affiliation; West Virginia state law allows the secretary of state to refuse to certify a candidate if they were registered to vote with a different party within 60 days of filing to run for office.

Manchin becomes the second Senate Democrat in recent years to switch their party affiliation to independent. In late 2022, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona announced she was leaving the party and becoming an independent. She later said she would not seek a second Senate term.

For years, Manchin had been perhaps the most conservative member of the Senate Democratic Caucus, burnishing a reputation for going his own way and relishing his role as a thorn in the side of Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden and his own party leadership.

And while he voted with Biden on major legislative initiatives, including the Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS and Science Act, Manchin has been an outspoken critic of the current president on numerous occasions, particularly on energy issues.

Last year, Manchin, the chairman of the Senate Energy committee, threatened to join Republicans in voting to repeal the IRA, Biden’s signature climate change law that the senator had helped negotiate, over objections to how the law was being implemented by the administration.

And in 2022, Manchin demanded that Biden apologize for urging the closure of coal-fired power plants and a shift to clean energy, calling his comments “divorced from reality.

Throughout this election cycle, Manchin had flirted with launching a third-party bid against Biden, a prospect that would have significantly damaged the incumbent Democrat in the general election against Trump. But the senator, in February, announced that he would not take on such an endeavor.

“I will not be seeking a third-party run. I will not be involved in a presidential run,” Manchin said during a speech at the time. “I will be involved in making sure that we secure a president that has the knowledge and has the passion and has the ability to bring this country together.”

Kercheval, the prominent West Virginia radio host, said on his Friday radio show as the news broke that the development was a big blow for Democrats in the state, but one that isn’t necessarily a big surprise. “Manchin has been toying with this independence for a long time. Even though he’s a Democrat, he’s been operating in Washington like an independent for a while,” Kercheval said.

Kercheval noted that, amid speculation that Manchin might reverse course and run for governor, the move to re-register as an independent “keeps his options open for another 60 days.”

“He may not run for anything, and I don’t think he will,” Kercheval added. “But Manchin is known to change his mind and this does keep his options open.”

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