Manchin’s Moment for a No Labels Relabel

Sen. Joe Manchin co-headlines the “Common Sense” town hall, an event sponsored by the bipartisan group No Labels on Monday evening, July 17, 2023 at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo by John Tully/Washington Post/Getty Images)

Sen. Joe Manchin’s newly announced retirement has made life a lot simpler for both parties’ 2024 Senate map.

He was always unlikely to win reelection as a Democrat in West Virginia where. Especially if Donald Trump is again the Republican presidential nominee, Manchin’s party will lose at the top of the ticket by 40 points or more. 

Manchin narrowly defied the odds in 2018, the best Democratic midterm year in generations, against a weak Republican challenger. But with the state’s popular Republican governor cruising to his party’s Senate nomination, Manchin’s chances were basically nil.

With him out of the race, Democrats will have no obligation to expend resources or annoy progressives—who hate Manchin with the heat of 10,000 coal-fired power plants—to make a show of trying to protect the seat.   

That frees up the party to focus on the four most difficult seats for Democrats to retain: Ohio, Montana, Arizona, and Nevada. They’ll need all of them in order to hold onto their one-seat Senate majority. It’s a tough map, but a little more manageable now that they can cut their losses in West Virginia.

But it also frees Manchin up to focus on his bid for the nomination of No Labels, the bipartisan group of moderates preparing a third-party presidential bid for next year. The organization insists that it won’t run a candidate without “the proper environmental conditions,” which seems mostly to mean a rematch between Trump and President Biden.

Announcing his Senate retirement, Manchin said he would be “traveling the country and speaking out” with an effort at “creating a movement to mobilize the middle.” If that sounds vague, that’s because No Labels is too. Aside from the conditional nature of the effort, there’s also no clear process for how the group will pick its presidential ticket at its Dallas convention in April.

Will there be debates? Will there be delegates? If so, how will they be apportioned? Running for a maybe nomination determined by undefined means could drive even a plain-spoken politician into the euphemistic murk. But whatever game of Calvinball No Labels has its hopefuls playing, Manchin’s strategy of raising big bales of cash and stumping for votes and media attention makes sense.

And certainly, the non-party party’s nomination is already a thing of considerable value.

No Labels is now on the ballot in 12 states, including at least one, Alaska, where it does not badly strain the imagination to think that a fusion ticket could have a fighting chance for three electoral votes. 

More significantly, the group has already gotten a slot in three of the most competitive swing states, Arizona, Nevada, and North Carolina, worth a combined 32 electoral votes. To succeed, Trump would almost certainly need to win the two big ones, Arizona and North Carolina, which were decided last time by .3 points and 1.3 points, respectively. 

No Labels’ most significant recent addition, though, is Florida, an electoral behemoth with 30 votes. Along with Texas, it makes up the foundation of any possible Republican Electoral College victory. In a century, no Republican has won the presidency without Florida. And with a GOP margin of victory in 2020 of only 3 points, a close association with electoral pandemonium, and a pendular political history (neither party has won the state three times in a row since 1988), Florida looks like the place so far where we can most clearly see how No Labels could disrupt the expected electoral map.

The other seven states have been consistent on the presidential level for decades—Arkansas, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Utah for Republicans; Colorado, Hawaii, and Oregon for Democrats.

All told, No Labels is competing in states worth a combined 105 electoral votes, 64 of which are in states where the group’s candidate could make a significant difference. The group says it will make the cut in all 50 states, but one can see how even just being in the mix for 20 percent of all electoral votes could make a difference.

But it also makes something else clear: To make that difference, No Labels would need someone not just attractive to Republican-leaning voters but not appealing to disaffected Democrats.

If the group’s first goal is, as it seems to be, to deny Trump a return to the White House, a well-funded alternative in the form of a moderate or traditionally conservative Republican could do serious damage to the current GOP frontrunner. Even just a few points in Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina would be enough to smother Trump’s chances.

No Labels’ leaders no doubt want a ticket that could actually win the presidency, but to get the traction and donations necessary to get to a point where that is even a remote consideration, the first priority would have to be targeting disaffected Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

That’s certainly not Manchin, at least not yet.  

But not running for the Senate also frees Manchin up in another way. With a partial government shutdown looming and funding measures to help U.S. allies in Ukraine and Israel, Manchin’s lame duck tenure in the Senate is starting with a bang. And like his longtime fellow Democratic apostate, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Manchin is now beyond the reach of party leaders who would use electoral support to try to enforce parisian discipline on key votes.    

Manchin at the moment of his retirement is still a man of the left. He’s a vestige of the Blue Dog, Clinton-era Democratic Party in which he cut his teeth. Those folks lost the fight for their party, but there are still lots of those voters, particularly in suburban swing districts. Significantly, though, such voters could reliably be counted on to pick Biden over Trump in a rematch.

In the coming days and months, though, Manchin will have a big stage in the narrowly divided Senate for a rebranding. Unbound by the demands of reelection, Manchin could use that stage to make his case to the right in a way he could not before while reemphasising his preferred role as a bipartisan dealmaker.

That could have implications for Manchin’s bid to be a third-party presidential candidate, but it most certainly would make life a lot more interesting in an already chaotic Congress.

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