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Joe Manchin’s 2024 Re-Election: Difficult or Impossible?

Senator Joe Manchin is the last remaining Democrat elected statewide in West Virginia. After defying state partisanship to win reelection in 2018, pundits wonder whether he can pull off an even more impressive victory in 2024.

Our Safe Republican rating reflects the fact that Manchin’s path to victory is currently too narrow to indicate a competitive race. If he does decide to seek reelection, he will have to overcome increasing polarization and outrun the top of the ticket by unprecedented margins in what is now one of the reddest states in the country. All this must happen in a presidential election year when turnout is high and partisan tensions are higher.

Looking at the fate of former Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson (MN-07), a Trump-district Democrat who lost reelection in 2020, sheds light on our West Virginia rating and shows how Manchin’s 2024 reelection bid might turn out.

Peterson was in many ways similar to Manchin. As a farmer from rural northwestern Minnesota, his original political brand gradually grew out of step with the modern platform of the Democratic Party — turning his moderate reputation into a conservative one.

Both politicians had staying power because they were dedicated to key interest groups. Peterson was a staunch ally of the Farm Bureau and played an influential role in crafting each national Farm Bill — eventually becoming chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. And Manchin, protecting West Virginia’s coal industry, has repeatedly used his influence to water down progressive energy bills. 

But Peterson and Manchin don’t just share similar backgrounds. Minnesota’s old 7th district has much in common with the state of West Virginia. Both have been more Republican than the nation for two decades, with Bill Clinton in 1996 being the last Democratic presidential candidate to win either. State and local Democrats that have succeeded here since then have done so by taking advantage of down-ballot lag and split-ticket voting.

In addition to being ancestrally Democratic, both areas also long had a populist flair. When former Governor Floyd Bjørnstjerne Olson made farmer-labor progressivism relevant in Minnesota, the counties making up the 7th district were his strongest in the state. Similarly, in much of the 20th century, Democrats ran the best in southern West Virginia’s coalfields

In 1930, when Farmer-Labor progressive Floyd Bjørnstjerne Olson won, his best areas of the state were in western Minnesota’s eponymous River Valley, as well as northwestern Minnesota’s Red River Valley. Both of these communities would become Democratic mainstays and remain competitive until the Trump era.

The 7th district and West Virginia also share similar demographics: 

Even though the 7th district has leaned Republican since the 1990s, Peterson had no problem getting reelected after his first victory. Similarly, Joe Manchin first won statewide office in 2000 and easily held on throughout the ensuing decade. While his jump to the Senate in 2010 was marred by increased polarization, he still won comfortably, and his 2012 victory was a blowout. 

None, however, could have predicted the changes that Donald Trump’s rise would have on the political climate. 

In 2016, Collin Peterson’s district voted for Trump by over 30 points, a huge contrast to 2012 when it was decided by single digits. Peterson himself, who had won by 25 in 2012 and by 9 in 2014, saw his margin slip to just 5 points — one of the closer elections of his career.

Two years later, during Trump’s midterm, Peterson was one of the few House Democrats who did slightly worse than he had in 2016. (This in a rematch against underfunded challenger Dave Hughes) Sensing an opportunity driven by realignment, Republicans got their act together in 2020 and nominated a top-tier candidate: former State Senate President Michelle Fischbach. 

Fischbach ultimately crushed Peterson. With Trump winning the district by more than 30 points and multiple marijuana legalization parties on the ballot, Peterson did not even crack 40% of the vote. Even if all the marijuana legalization voters went to Peterson, he still wouldn’t even get 45%. 

Given the mechanics of third-party vote redistribution, though, it’s likely that a race between two parties would only have brought negligible changes. The headwinds were just too strong for Peterson to sustain the levels of crossover support he had attracted in earlier elections. While he remained an exceptional overperformer, even a WAR of D+11 was not enough to see him over the line in Trump +30 district in a presidential year. West Virginia happens to be even redder than this, which does not bode well for Manchin’s re-election.

Keep in mind that in 2020, there had only been one election cycle since Trump’s election, making it difficult to determine his impact on polarization. At the very least, North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s double-digit loss in 2018 should have offered some insight about the changing political winds in Peterson’s neighboring state. 

Manchin’s trajectory is quite similar. His one and only Trump-era election was in 2018, where he faced an underwhelming opponent in Attorney General Patrick Morrissey. While he did come out on top, posting Split Ticket’s highest Senate WAR score to date, he won by just 3 points and didn’t secure a majority of the vote. Even in a very blue year like 2018, polarization was nearly insurmountable. 

In 2024, Manchin will have all of the problems of that race and more. First and foremost, presidential-level turnout in a state like West Virginia means tens of thousands of low-propensity Republican voters will turn out, especially with a figure like Donald Trump most likely on the ballot. The last time Manchin shared a ballot line with a Democratic presidential nominee was in 2012, before the Trump-era realignment and in an environment with much more ticket-splitting than 2024 is likely to see. 

Second, the dynamics of the race are different. In 2018, Manchin was in the minority and unable to take any liberal positions that would endanger him in such a conservative state. Six years later, Democrats are defending the majority and Manchin is either the 50th or 51st vote for the agenda of a president who is extremely unpopular in West Virginia. This already paints a bigger target on his back than Collin Peterson had in 2020 when he was one of several dozen vulnerable Democrats. 

Third, the candidate quality problem Republicans have had against Manchin seems to have fixed itself. In 2010 and 2012, Republicans ran businessman John Raese and failed. In 2018, Attorney General Morrissey ran and failed. But in 2024, the heavy favorite to become the GOP nominee is Republican Governor Jim Justice. Hugely popular and with high name recognition and financial strength, all the current polls have Manchin heavily trailing Justice. 
Looking at these factors, and noting that West Virginia is in fact redder than Minnesota’s 7th district, it would be reasonable to expect a double-digit loss for Manchin as the median outcome, with his maximum ceiling being sub-50%. Split Ticket maintains this race rating as Safe Republican.

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