Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), left, with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) in late October. Republicans hope Manchin's retirement will free up cash to unseat Tester and bring another Republican gain.
When Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced on Nov. 9 that he would not seek reelection, Democrats and Republicans agreed: Without its moderate incumbent, Democrats would have to write off West Virginia’s Senate seat entirely.
The two parties’ shared spin on the development starts and ends there, with Democrats insisting there’s a silver lining in getting Manchin’s lost cause of a race off the books, freeing them up to focus on more winnable races: challenges in Texas and Florida, two states where the party hopes a focus on abortion rights can turn long shots into tight contests.
The degree to which Democrats are stretching shows just how desperate the party’s 2024 situation is ― and was even before Manchin’s decision not to run: The GOP needs to net just two Senate seats to take the majority, and Democrats’ dismal map has them defending seats across the country.
“Clearly, taking West Virginia off the board is not an ideal situation,” said former Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who ran for Senate in 2022 and now runs the anti-Trump group We the People. “It makes things a little more difficult for sure.”
Assuming the Republican incumbents, all of whom are in states Trump won in 2020, can hold on, Manchin’s exit means the GOP needs to gain just one more seat to flip the chamber, and it narrows the focus of GOP challenges to two long-serving Democrats: Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
And if Ohio, West Virginia and Montana are emblematic of the states Democrats have struggled in since Donald Trump’s ascension ― heavily white and working class ― both Florida and Texas are emblematic of states with large Latino and Black populations where Biden’s struggles with traditional Democratic voters will make the party’s job even harder.
“Republicans have eight targets that are better by presidential margin than Democrats’ best target,” said Mike Berg, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senate Committee.
For one thing, more optimistic Democrats argue, working to reelect Manchin was going to cost tens of millions of dollars without almost no chance of success. Trump carried West Virginia by 39 percentage points in his 2020 bid for reelection to the White House, and he is likely to be on the ballot again in 2024. When Manchin won with less than 50% of the vote in 2018, allies of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer successfully meddled in the GOP primary and spent a total of $16 million.
Repeating the 2018 miracle looked impossible. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) held a 13-point edge over Manchin in a mid-October poll of a head-to-head matchup. And that was before Trump endorsed Justice’s bid.
Even Ryan, the former Ohio congressman, found it implausible that additional Republican money would endanger Brown, instead characterizing his state’s drift away from the national Democratic Party as the biggest obstacle.
I don’t think any additional money on one side or the other is going to influence it.Former Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio)
“There’s going to be ample money here to the point where everyone will have enough to get their message out,” Ryan said. “So I don’t think any additional money on one side or the other is going to influence it.”
National Democrats downplayed the idea that losing Manchin would make their jobs harder in Ohio and Montana.
They also claimed that writing off West Virginia could enable them to go on offense in the Republican-leaning states of Texas and Florida, where the party sees incumbents as out of step and vulnerable. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a darling of the hard right, nearly lost his reelection bid in 2018.
And Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) won his first Senate race in 2018 by less than half of a percentage point.
Since then, he has given Democrats plenty of ways to attack him. While serving as chair of the NRSC in 2022, Scott drew Democratic criticism from districts far from Florida ― along with Republican frustration ― with his plan to dramatically shrink the federal government by, among other things, making all federal legislation expire in five years and requiring Congress to reauthorize each bill. That clause would have applied to Social Security and Medicare, programs that are deeply popular among the large senior population of the Sunshine State, though Scott subsequently revised the plan to exclude the two programs.
“Democrats are strongly positioned to hold our Senate majority thanks to incumbents with the record and resources to win reelection, along with Democrats already mounting impressive challenges against unpopular GOP senators in Texas and Florida,” said J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, the Democrat-supporting super PAC closely tied to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Democrats also see abortion rights as a winning issue in both states, where restrictive laws are either already in effect or due to take effect shortly.
Former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), the first South American immigrant in Congress, lost her reelection bid in 2020. She now hopes to unseat Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
The issue could be especially salient in Florida given the prospect of a referendum to enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution. The ballot amendment has already obtained enough signatures to make it eligible for review by the Florida Supreme Court. If the court clears its constitutionality, abortion rights supporters will need to collect more signatures for it to appear on the ballot in November 2024.
Scott, who previously served as governor, has said that he would have signed the state’s six-week abortion ban if he were still in office. He co-sponsored a 2021 bill barring abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy and has more recently suggested that he is open to a stricter national law to limit abortion rights.
Scott’s “agenda would take away woman’s rights to make our own health care decisions and put doctors in jail,” former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powel said in a statement to HuffPost. “That record is one of the most important reasons why Floridians are ready to turn out in 2024 to hold him accountable.”
Democrats have promising candidates in both states as well. In Florida, they’re looking at Mucarsel-Powell, an Ecuadorean immigrant from populous southeast Florida, who entered the race in August. In Texas, Democrats are lining up behind Rep. Colin Allred, a moderate Black former NFL player from the state’s increasingly Democratic suburbs, who announced his candidacy in May.
“Senate campaigns are candidate vs. candidate contests ― and we’ve got the better candidates,” David Bergstein, communications director for Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “Our Senate Democrats are battle tested, they’re backed by their own unique coalition of voters, and they’re running against deeply damaged and flawed Republicans ― who are on the wrong side of issues like a woman’s right to make her own health care choices.”
Allred and Mucarsel-Powell aren’t likely to win — Texas is a perennial source of dashed hopes for Democrats, while Florida has turned sharply right in recent election cycles. Both states are also packed with expensive media markets that make spending even a symbolically significant amount costly.
How is Chuck Schumer going to justify spending $100 million to play in Florida or Texas while his incumbent senators are in the races of their lives?Mike Berg, National Republican Senatorial Committee
“Florida and Texas are extremely expensive for outside groups,” Berg, the NRSC spokesperson, added. “How is Chuck Schumer going to justify spending $100 million to play in Florida or Texas while his incumbent senators are in the races of their lives?”
Berg’s point, however, may be dependent on how many of those Democratic incumbents Republicans can pose a credible threat to. The party has struggled with recruiting, landing their preferred candidate only in Pennsylvania while ending up with either MAGA-aligned candidates, such as Kari Lake in Arizona, or whiffing in other states, including Wisconsin.
Democrats’ hopes of either winning or forcing the GOP to spend cash defending seats they would otherwise take for granted are also wholly reliant on both Allred and Mucarsel-Powell turning in top-notch fundraising performances. In 2018, Scott personally gave $63 million to his campaign, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s near-miss against Cruz came after record-shattering fundraising.
But with a challenging Senate map for Democrats, the two candidates’ strong fundraising could expand the battlefield, forcing Republicans to spend money defending seats that they would have preferred to take for granted. Allred raised $4.7 million in the last quarter (O’Rourke raised just $1.7 million in the equivalent time frame) while Mucarsel-Powell raised $1.5 million in the first five weeks of her new campaign.
And, of course, nothing happening in Texas or Florida will matter if both Tester and Brown go down. Both candidates are running well ahead of the president in public polling, with Brown generally leading his little-known opponents and Montana looking like a tighter race.
Neither result is surprising given that Brown and Tester are the last Democrats to win statewide elections in their states. In 2018, Brown beat his GOP opponent by almost 7 percentage points, two years after Trump carried the former swing state by 8 points.
In addition to showcasing Brown’s record as a liberal populist who’s at home in Ohio’s union halls, Democrats have highlighted the messy race on the right to replace him, with candidates they argue won’t be nearly as competitive as Brown in a statewide race. That Republican primary is a three-way race among entrepreneur Bernie Moreno, state Sen. Matt Dolan and Secretary of State Frank LaRose, with only LaRose ever having won statewide.
Democrats are convinced the GOP primary will bloody whichever nominee emerges, setting them up for defeat in the general election against Brown.
“Sherrod’s record fighting for workers and the Dignity of Work, standing up to special interests, and always doing the right thing for Ohioans will stand in stark contrast to whoever is nominated to run against him,” said Rachel Petri, Brown’s campaign manager, in a statement to HuffPost.