Joe Manchin of West Virginia is usually considered the most moderate Democrat in the U.S. Senate. Now, Manchin is facing re-election in an increasingly conservative state.
Next year, Manchin may face a formidable challenge from the popular Gov. Jim Justice, a former Democrat himself. Other Senate Democrats, besides just Manchin, are facing similarly difficult elections. For example, Sherrod Brown is facing re-election in the increasingly red Ohio.
In other words, Jim Justice may put Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer out of a job.
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Justice is set to reveal his 2024 election plans, ending months of speculation about whether he’ll seek the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Manchin. Justice is scheduled to make an announcement Thursday evening at The Greenbrier, the posh resort in White Sulphur Springs that he bought out of bankruptcy in 2009. The event will be held on his 72nd birthday.
Justice, who is barred by state law from seeking a third consecutive term as governor, has been fielding questions about his Senate plans for months. If he runs for Senate, the announcement would set up what could be a hard-fought campaign against two of the state’s most prominent politicians.
The governor was elected in 2016 as a Democrat, but he joined the GOP the following year. In so doing, Justice gave the GOP its 34th governorship out of 50, and he put the GOP in one of its most dominant positions in history (By comparison, the GOP now controls only 26 of the 50 governorships.)
Justice said he told Manchin about the party switch the day before his announcement, keeping it secret even from the governor’s own staff. Manchin said the switch disappointed him.
Now foes, the pair have traded jabs ever since. In 2019, Justice in a news release called Manchin “one of those loud Washington liberals” who hadn’t embraced Trump and blamed Manchin, a former two-term governor, for the state’s neglected road system. Manchin returned fire, saying “knowing Jim Justice’s character, it’s not a surprise for him to make a comment like this. He blames others for the work he hasn’t done.”
The governor was also a Republican before 2015. In other words, he’s changed parties twice.
Manchin, who endorsed Justice in his first gubernatorial bid before their relationship deteriorated, has said he plans to decide his future plans in December, although Manchin’s federal campaign filings show he already has more than $9.7 million cash on hand. If Manchin seeks reelection, Justice’s announcement means Manchin is likely in for his toughest test in his three decades in West Virginia politics. But it was never going to be easy.
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Manchin is one of three Democratic senators up for reelection in 2024 who represent a state won by former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Manchin has been the only Democrat elected to statewide office in West Virginia since Justice switched his party affiliation in 2017.
A Senate bid by Justice would set up a matchup in the 2024 GOP primary with U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney. Mooney jumped into the Senate race less than two weeks after winning his fifth term in the House last November. State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who lost to Manchin in the 2018 general election, has announced he will run for governor next year.
No Democrats have announced a challenge to Manchin, though Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a progressive, has suggested he would support a primary opponent to Manchin, who was responsible for moderating many of President Joe Biden’s spending plans.
As governor, Justice took advantage of Trump’s popularity amid a red wave in West Virginia, a state once considered a Democrat stronghold. In 2017, Justice joined Trump at an event to announce his switch to the GOP.
The governor has become known for his exuberant and sometimes oddball method of delivery. He attends major events with his beloved English bulldog Babydog in tow, and Thursday’s announcement will be no different. He famously brought the pup to his 2022 State of the State address. During his speech, he flashed his dog’s rear end to the cameras to send a message to the liberal singer Bette Midler that she could kiss Babydog’s “heinie” for criticizing West Virginia residents.
The room of legislators gave him a standing ovation.
In touting the state’s accomplishments, Justice often conjures up one of his favorite sayings: “Any frog who is not proud of his own pond is not much of a frog.”
Take a look —
.@WVGovernor Jim Justice: "Babydog tells Bette Midler and all those out there to kiss her heinie." https://t.co/EOWP7c5yEm pic.twitter.com/gHoyzTR9uX
— The Hill (@thehill) January 29, 2022
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In January 2023, Justice reintroduced an often-made proposal to cut the state’s personal income tax. Justice said legislative leaders told him to either give up trying or “make a big splash.”
“And so here comes me cannonballing into the pool,” the governor said. “By God, I’ll make a big splash. I’ll promise you that .. tonight I’m proposing our West Virginia tsunami that the world will hear in every single way.”
After lawmakers agreed to a compromise tax cut of 21.25%, Justice signed it in early March.
Before going into politics, Justice bought the 6,500-acre (2,630-hectare) Greenbrier resort for $20.1 million. Within a year he had constructed a bunker casino beneath the posh resort’s 721-room hotel and established a PGA Tour golf event that was held on the Old White TPC for 10 years.
Justice reached billionaire status through family-owned farms and coal mines. His worth peaked at $1.7 billion in 2018, at which point he was estimated to be the richest person in the Mountain State.
However, Justice was taken off Forbes’ prestigious list of billionaires in 2021. He blamed a bankrupt U.K. bank for fraudulently inducing him into personally guaranteeing $700 million in loans that were taken out by his companies.
Justice’s businesses faced several other woes, including millions of dollars in penalties from the federal government and court fights over claims his companies failed to deliver coal, pay tax debts owed to counties or contribute toward monthly premiums on employee benefit plans.
Once asked about how he manages cash flow in his businesses, Justice told a reporter, “I don’t sit on a pot of gold.”
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Justice made clear soon after being elected that he would continue to coach the Greenbrier East girls basketball team, a job he has held for more than two decades. He led the Spartans to the state championship in 2012.
Whether he continues moonlighting as a coach if he becomes a U.S. senator remains to be seen.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.