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Democratic Sen. Joe Machin is registering as an independent

WASHINGTON –

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia announced Friday that he has changed his registration to independent, raising questions about his political plans as the move could help his chances if he seeks re-election in the a state that became strongly republican.

Manchin, 76, has often been at odds with the Democratic Party and has been 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 across the finish line in 2022.

He already announced in November that he would not seek re-election to the Senate, giving Republicans a clear path to take the seat in West Virginia in their bid to regain the majority next year.

Manchin has been 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 endangering our democracy.”

“Today, our national politics is fractured and neither party is willing to compromise to find common ground,” Manchin said. “To stay true to myself and remain committed to putting country before party, I have decided to register as an unaffiliated independent and continue to fight for the sensible majority of America.”

Manchin will continue to work with Democrats and retain the presidency, according to a person familiar with his thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity to share his plans. The move helps Democrats retain their slim 51-49 majority in the Senate.

Still, in the face of a potential retirement from politics, Manchin appears to be keeping other 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 spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter. But a deadline in West Virginia forced the issue.

Candidates must file their political affiliation 60 days before the Aug. 1 deadline to run in this year’s election.

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

He had gone back and forth for months before announcing he was not running for re-election to the Senate. Many wondered if he could win against wildly popular Gov. Jim Justice, the Republican Senate candidate Manchin helped recruit to run for governor as a Democrat in 2016. Justice switched to the Republican at a rally with then-President Donald Trump soon after. the first term.

If the Senate candidates can stumble, Manchin could be ready to try to keep his seat. But a run for governor might be more favorable.

Manchin defeated Republican gubernatorial candidate state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey once before, in 2018. That Senate campaign was Manchin’s toughest in more than three decades in West Virginia politics . He beat Morrisey by just over three percentage points.

Steve Williams, who is the Democratic candidate for governor and mayor of Huntington, said last week that he does not believe Manchin plans to enter the governor’s race, adding that they have been friends for decades.

West Virginia Democratic Party officials said Friday that Manchin had not notified them that he was switching to independent. In a statement Friday, state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Pushkin expressed disappointment.

“Although the senator was one of the most independent senators in the country and at times opposed the Democratic agenda, we will always be grateful for his votes to impeach President Trump, the creation of the January 6th Commission, and his warning that if he is reelected , 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 shifted dramatically since then.

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

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

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

Manchin, the latest in a line of powerful West Virginia Senate Democrats who have championed coal interests nationally, has increasingly lambasted the bipartisan system over the past year. During a tour of a stamping plant in Charleston in October, he said he identified more with the independents than with 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 the independent identity better.”


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