West Virginia Governor Jim Justice is officially in the Senate race, having announced his bid to unseat incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin. While we have long had this race as favored to flip – we started it at Likely Republican in our initial ratings back in January – Justice’s entry is yet another problem for Manchin in what is likely to be his first general election defeat of his career.
As West Virginia continues to solidify itself as a red bastion at all levels, Manchin has become the last Democrat standing. And we’re confident that 2024 will mark a historic shift in West Virginia history. We’re moving the West Virginia Senate race to Safe Republican.
Manchin’s crumbling approvals
Even if Manchin was popular, holding West Virginia would be an extremely difficult feat. Donald Trump carried the state by nearly 40 percentage points in 2016, while Manchin only held on 3.3% in 2018, a D+9 wave year nationally. Manchin would need to see an almost unprecedented level of ticket-splitting – levels we haven’t seen since the 2000s.
The problem is that Manchin is actually wildly unpopular. After two years of supporting most Democratic priorities, Manchin has unsurprisingly seen his once rosy approvals dip to 40% or below. His approval rating in the most recent Morning Consult poll is 17 points underwater, with 38% of voters approving while 55% disapprove. That’s the second-worst approval rating in the country for an incumbent Senator. A poll from the GOP-aligned Tarrance Group gives Manchin a similarly poor rating of 39-56%.
Much of Manchin’s woes seem to come from his support for the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a $740 billion climate package which was extremely unpopular in West Virginia. Seemingly recognizing this liability, Manchin has since gone to war publicly with the Biden administration’s implementation of the bill. He has even threatened to vote to repeal it in what would be one of the most abrupt flip-flops of all time.
How bad are Manchin’s odds?
With ratings this bad, it’s not impossible for a candidate to win. In states of the same party, unpopular candidates aligned with the majority win all the time. And even though polling showed Susan Collins underwater throughout all of 2020, she managed to win by 8.6% in a state Biden carried by 9.1%. That’s an impressive over-performance of 17.7%. In fact, in the last two presidential cycles, hers is the only race where a state split its ticket for Senate.
If Manchin over-performs by a similar margin in 2024, he’d still lose by over a landslide. In fact, you can have him overperform by double what Collins did, and that’s still not enough. Manchin’s coalition is so tenuous that if loses even 5% of ticket-splitters, he’ll lose the Senate race. At Elections Daily, we think this is a near certainty to happen; Democratic support in West Virginia has atrophied at all levels since 2018. After the 2018 elections, Democrats held 14 of 34 seats in the Senate and 43 of 100 seats in the House of Delegates. Since then, they’re been reduced to only three seats in the Senate and 11 in the House of Delegates. They’ve also been relegated to minority status in voter registration.
In other words, not only would a Manchin win rely on unprecedented party splitting, it would require this in a state that is careening rightward at all levels – all on behalf of a candidate West Virginians simply don’t approve of at this point.
The Justice factor
The odds are so stacked against Manchin that we strongly considered opening the West Virginia Senate race at Safe Republican. However, we felt the odds of an Alex Mooney primary win were high enough that it could potentially leave an opening for Manchin – however small. Mooney is, after all, a chronic underperformer that faces both popularity issues and residency issues.
However, the entry of Governor Jim Justice – who sports impressive approval ratings of over 60% – was the final straw for us. According to the Terrace Group poll, Justice holds a commanding 53% of the vote in a primary, over 30 points ahead of his closest challenger. Moreover, he already leads 52-42 over Manchin.
Ultimately, we don’t believe Manchin has a true path to re-election at this point. The stars would truly need to realign in order to create a path forward. It’s unclear if Manchin will even run for re-election at this point, but even if he does, we think the state is certain to flip to the Republican Party.