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Joe Manchin’s journey toward a potential divorce from the Democrats

The Democratic Party’s rocky alliance with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) increasingly looks as though it might be in jeopardy.

Manchin on Thursday offered his strongest comments to date suggesting he could soon leave the party and become an independent, saying he was “absolutely” considering such a move.

“I’ve been thinking seriously about that for quite some time,” Manchin told West Virginia radio host Hoppy Kercheval.

Manchin added, “I want to make sure that my voice is truly an independent voice. … I want to be able to speak honestly about, basically, the extremes of the Democrat and Republican Party that is harming our nation.”

Exactly what form such a party switch could take matters hugely. Manchin could seemingly become an independent who still caucuses with Democrats, which might not be so bad for all parties involved. But to the extent it would involve Manchin retiring or running as a third-party candidate for president, it could be bad news for Democrats.

Manchin’s statement comes less than two years after he forcefully denied a report that he had spoken with associates about such a move. He called the report “rumors.”

What we’ve seen in the time since, though, is an increasing acknowledgment that a split is indeed a possibility, if not a likelihood. That has culminated in Manchin’s current and highly consequential deliberations about whether to seek reelection in 2024 or maybe even run for president on the No Labels ticket. (Democrats would very much prefer he did the former — as a Democrat — and not the latter.)

To recap:

2010: “Joe Manchin is a lifelong Democrat, and he is not switching parties,” a spokesman says.2016: Asked if he has considered a party switch, Manchin says, “Not one day.”April 2021: “I’ve never considered [a party switch] from that standpoint, because I know I can change more from where I’m at.”Oct. 20, 2021: He forcefully denies a report that he talked about a party switch with associates.Oct. 21, 2021: He clarifies that he had told Democratic leaders he would become an independent if he’s becoming an “embarrassment” to his party.April 2022: He downplays a report that he told Senate GOP No. 2 John Thune (R-S.D.) that he would switch parties if Thune led the GOP. “The bottom line is I am a West Virginia Democrat,” Manchin says.December: After Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) leaves the Democratic Party to become an independent, Manchin says that “right now, I have no intentions of changing anything except working for West Virginians.” But he indicates that could change.February: Asked if he still identifies as a Democrat, Manchin says, “I identify as an American.”July: Asked at a No Labels event about becoming an independent like Sinema, Manchin says, “We’ll see what happens.”Today: “I’ve been thinking seriously about that for quite some time.”

The progression here is evident. A split was once off the table, and Manchin sought to rein in speculation with varying degrees of denial. Now he’s clearly playing into it.

And the comment about wanting to be a “truly” independent voice and speak more freely about the “extremes of the Democrat and Republican Party” would sure seem to point to an exit and even a No Labels bid, which would be premised upon just such an argument.

Generally speaking, once you go down this road, there is no turning back. Nobody in your party will trust you if you talk about leaving it and then don’t. That’s why former senator Arlen Specter (Pa.) forcefully denied any such plans right up until the moment he switched from Republican to Democrat.

With Manchin, it’s a little more complicated. Certainly, it appears quite possible he’ll switch to become an independent; his reelection is severely imperiled in a state that voted 69 percent Republican in the last presidential election. It’s also difficult to separate this from his increasing flirtations with a No Labels bid.

But he also has all kinds of reasons to hold this out there as a threat, regardless.

The Washington Post reported last week that he’s tussling with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) about support for a reelection bid. Manchin has been highly critical of how the Biden administration has deployed the Inflation Reduction Act, in which Manchin played a key role. Manchin’s vote is so important in the Senate that wielding threats like this could help steer the Democratic agenda in a friendlier direction for his constituents on issues like coal and energy.

Indeed, Manchin has always held the best cards in this relationship, even if Manchin’s many liberal critics don’t want to accept that fact. Democrats need him to have any real shot at holding his seat, and his exit would severely diminish their hopes of holding the Senate in a year with a very difficult map. Democrats are also increasingly fretting about the No Labels ticket potentially siphoning votes away from President Biden.

Whether that would ultimately come to pass is an open question. We also don’t know what form a party switch might take; seeking reelection as an independent but still caucusing with Democrats could help bolster perceptions of Manchin’s independence back home and allow Manchin to hold a chairmanship in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The party has allowed Democratic-caucusing independents like Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and former senator Joe Lieberman (Conn.) to lead committees.

What’s clear is that Manchin is playing this card pretty hard right now, and Democrats have at least some reason to worry.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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