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Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia registers as independent, citing 'partisan extremism'

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic Sen.
FILE - Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, July 11, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Manchin says he has registered as an independent, raising questions about his future political plans. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia announced Friday he has switched his registration to independent, raising questions about his political plans since the move could help his chances should he seek elected office again in a state that has turned heavily Republican.

Manchin, 76, has often been at odds with the Democratic Party and an obstacle to many of President Joe Biden’s legislative priorities. But he played a central role in helping Biden get a landmark climate change and health care bill over the finish line in 2022.

He had already announced in November that he wouldn’t seek re-election to the Senate, giving Republicans a clear path to picking up his West Virginia seat in their bid to retake the majority next year.

Manchin has served in the Senate since 2010 and is the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He said in a statement that over the past 15 years he has seen both major political parties leave their constituents behind for "partisan extremism while jeopardizing our democracy.”

“Today, our national politics are broken and neither party is willing to compromise to find common ground,” Manchin said. “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 will continue to caucus with Democrats and keep his chairmanship, according to a person familiar with his thinking who was granted anonymity to share his plans. The move helps Democrats preserve their slim 51-49 majority in the Senate.

Still, facing potential retirement from politics, Manchin appears to be keeping his options open.

He has long wanted to switch his party affiliation to become an independent, according to a second person familiar with the situation who was granted anonymity to discuss it. But a looming deadline in West Virginia forced the issue.

Candidates must file their political affiliation 60 days prior to a Aug. 1 deadline to run in this year's election.

Now registered as an independent, Manchin still has time to mount another Senate race or a potential run for governor, a position he held from 2005 to 2010.

He had gone back and forth for months before announcing he wasn’t running for reelection to the Senate. Many questioned whether he could win against the immensely popular Gov. Jim Justice, the Republican Senate nominee who Manchin helped recruit to run for governor as a Democrat in 2016. Justice switched to Republican at a rally with then-President Donald Trump not long into his first term.

Should the Senate candidates stumble, Manchin could be poised to try to keep his seat. But a run for governor could be more favorable.

Manchin has defeated the Republican nominee for governor, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, once before, in 2018. That Senate campaign was Manchin's toughest in his three-plus decades in West Virginia politics. He defeated Morrisey by just over 3 percentage points.

Steve Williams, who is the Democratic nominee for governor and the mayor of Huntington, said last week he doesn’t believe Manchin intends to enter the gubernatorial race, adding that they've been friends for decades.

West Virginia Democratic Party officials said Friday Manchin did not give them a heads up he was switching to independent. In a statement Friday, state Democratic Party Chair Mike Pushkin said he was disappointed.

“While the senator has been one of the most independent senators in the country, and has sometimes opposed the Democratic agenda, we’ll always be grateful for his votes to impeach President Trump, to create the January 6th Commission, and his warning that, if re-elected, Trump ‘will destroy democracy in America,’” he said.

Manchin first entered the Senate after winning a special election following the death of Robert C. Byrd in 2010. The state's political tilt has changed dramatically since then.

Registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans during Manchin’s first two Senate campaigns, but those numbers have flipped. Now, about 40% of registered voters are Republicans, compared with 31% for Democrats and about 24% with no party affiliation.

Both chambers of the Legislature have Republican supermajorities, and Trump overwhelmingly won the state in 2016 and 2020.

Manchin had also flirted with the possibility of running for president as a third-party candidate, but decided against that in February, saying he didn’t want to be a “spoiler.”

Manchin, the last in a line of powerful Senate Democrats from West Virginia who promoted coal interests at the national level, has increasingly lamented the two-party system in the past year. During a tour of a Charleston stamping plant in October, he said he identified more with independents than either party.

“Don’t worry about the ‘D’ or the ‘R’, worry about the person — who is that person?” he said. “There can be a good D and a bad D and a good R and a bad R, but the identity — I like more the independent identity.”


Associated Press writers Farnoush Amiri and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report. Willingham reported from Charleston, W.V.

Lisa Mascaro, Kevin Freking And Leah Willingham, The Associated Press