In 2024, Republicans may face their own version of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) if they succeed in unseating him.
Gov. Jim Justice’s resume should make GOP loyalists worry. He backed Obamacare as a Democrat. As governor, he extended Medicaid. Before Manchin, he supported President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus and $1 trillion infrastructure program in 2021. He passed a tax increase.
All those factors, plus Justice’s history of trampling his own party in the legislature, led to no confidence votes, resignation calls, and at least one GOP lawmaker calling him “disturbingly self-centered.”
Like Manchin’s debt-hawkishness, fossil fuel friendliness, and openness to Donald Trump, these ingredients may raise red flags for Senate GOP leaders trying to build a majority in 2025.
Justice is the party’s top pick to replace Manchin, a red state Democrat, in the Senate.
Many Republicans see Justice like many Democrats see Manchin: a figure who, for all his frustrating and baffling movements, has a remarkable ability for retail politics and a deep feel for his own state.
Justice is a fascinating character, according to Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND). “His political recent history suggests he’s a pretty good reflection of West Virginia.”
West Virginia agrees. Former state senator Greg Boso said Justice and Manchin “came from the same era, where they both recognized that you have to be able to work across the aisle.”
Republicans are ignoring Justice’s ability to cause problems in order to win and even take control of the Senate. Cramer said he had donated to Justice, preferring him over Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV), a more traditional conservative who launched his Senate candidacy last year.
“Senate Republicans are needed. We want the majority.”
Boso, who publicly called for a vote of no confidence in the governor in 2019, is now supporting Justice. “He’d bring a different perspective that would be forward-thinking for our nation,” he remarked.
At Justice’s campaign launch last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) suggested that if elected, the governor could play a role similar to Manchin’s on Capitol Hill: bipartisan dealmaker.
Graham added, “He’s got a record of being conservative but also getting things done, so I think you’ll find him as the guy who will sit down with Democrats and Republicans to try to move the ball forward.”
Justice declined comment. On Tuesday, Manchin declined to discuss Justice with The Daily Beast in the Capitol. The senator said he was following the GOP primary drama.
“I won’t talk,” Manchin replied. “I’ll just watch the games.”
West Virginia’s unsolved questions underlie the GOP’s 2024 Senate offensive.
Manchin has not ruled out running for re-election, retiring from politics, or running as a third-party presidential candidate.
Manchin said he may not decide until the end of the year. He said he would “win any race I enter” after Justice entered. Justice must withstand Mooney’s primary fight.
“In West Virginia, everything is political except for politics—which is personal,” said former GOP chair Conrad Lucas.
“We’re a small state where everyone seems to have a relationship despite party lines,” he remarked.
Manchin and Justice have a close relationship in a small state with a close political environment. After Justice fired Manchin’s wife, Gayle, from the state Department of Education and the Arts in 2018, their friendship soured.
Justice also endorsed Manchin’s GOP rival that year—late and timid, but after allegations that Justice had privately favored Manchin.
Justice has defended Manchin from fellow Democrats as a buddy in recent years. Justice told Fox News that Manchin’s anger was “not tolerated—just period” when he sank the Build Back Better Act in late 2021.
Manchin reciprocated. The senator told NBC News in February that he would run a positive race against Justice.
“I respect whatever he does, and if we run against each other, it’ll be a good, strong, competitive race,” he remarked. “When the smoke clears, you still have that personal relationship and friendship you want to continue.”
Justice did not mention Manchin in his campaign kickoff video.
Justice may connect to Manchin’s experience of being vilified by Democrats and Republicans in his own party.
Democrats were furious when he joined the GOP in 2017 onstage at a Trump event. Justice’s politics and style of government rapidly irked West Virginia Republicans.
In 2019, Justice battled GOP lawmakers over his controversial K-12 education reform measure, adding to Republican concerns about his alleged poor communication, absence from the Capitol, and extensive business dealings.
Republican activists demanded Justice’s resignation or a no-confidence vote. The Charleston Kanawha County GOP chair stated Justice had done “random acts of Republicanism,” while the state College Republicans said he had “not governed as a conservative Republican with a deep commitment to moving West Virginia forward and defending our values.”
“He’s shown no willingness to build a coalition with either party,” said top state senator Ryan Weld. “As a Democrat, he clashed with fellow Democrats. He turned to Republican and always argues and blames us. Is he just a Republican or does he want to rule with us?”
Justice still has GOP opponents, but he has won over important individuals in the 2019 mutiny, notably Boso, who retired from the legislature.
“We’ve really moved the state in a very positive direction,”
If the primary were held today, Boso would support Justice, but he reserved judgment if other candidates ran. In Washington and West Virginia GOP circles, Justice is the clear frontrunner over Mooney, a five-term congressman who supports Trump and traditional conservatives.
According to The Daily Beast, another statewide campaign’s head-to-head survey shows Justice with 57 percent of the primary vote to Mooney’s 25 percent.
However, Mooney’s wealthy conservative allies at Club For Growth are promising to lavishly fund his campaign. The Club’s Tuesday morning ad called Justice a “deadbeat” for his debts and alleged nonpayment of staff.
Mooney and his allies have also labeled Justice a “RINO”—Republican In Name Only—to damage his image with conservative primary voters.
Democrats don’t understand the excitement given Mooney’s supporters’ determination and Justice’s weaknesses. Former Manchin advisor Jonathan Kott said Republicans had “overplayed their hand that this is a great get for them.” “Justice will struggle to defeat Alex Mooney.”
Justice’s backers are certain that he can win a primary and won’t be a Manchinesque swing vote that upsets a GOP majority and puts West Virginia in the spotlight again.
Lucas, the former state GOP chair, said, “He certainly has governed as a Republican, championing tax cuts and pro-life and pro-gun measures. “It boils down to who’s a guaranteed Republican vote between the two, versus waffling—and Manchin is always threading a needle.”