Almost since he arrived in Washington, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia has complained about the partisan nature of the Capitol and insisted that Americans are not as politically divided as the people they send to Congress.
With its announcement Thursday that he will not seek re-election next year, Mr. Manchin again raised the possibility that he believes the solution to America’s polarized politics lies in the mirror.
“What I will do is travel across the country and speak out to see if there is any interest in creating a movement to mobilize the community and bring Americans together,” Mr. Manchin said in his retirement video.
He added: “I know our country is not as divided as Washington wants us to believe. We share common values of family, freedom, democracy, dignity and the belief that together we can overcome any challenge. We must take back America and not let this divisive hatred divide us further. »
What Mr. Manchin actually plans to do remains a mystery. His closest aides and advisers insist they don’t know. A conservative Democrat who was one of his party’s key voters in the Senate, he has long kept his own counsel on his biggest decisions and made his decision at the last minute.
Mr. Manchin flirted this year with No Labels, a group that made noise by running a centrist candidate for the White House. No Labels officials said Thursday that Mr. Manchin’s announcement surprised them, although they praised him “for committing to leading a long-overdue national conversation on solving America’s biggest challenges.” America.”
“Concerning our No Labels Unity presidential bid, we are gathering feedback from our members across the country to understand the type of leaders they would like to see in the White House,” the group said in a statement.
Some allies of Mr. Manchin are skeptical of his candidacy for president. For one thing, it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to run a credible independent or third-party campaign, and Mr. Manchin has never been a formidable fundraiser on his own.
Senate Democratic colleagues and their super PAC subsidized much of his re-election effort in 2018 and were prepared to do so again next year if he had chosen to run. He hosted a fundraising event for his political action committee last weekend at the Greenbrier, the West Virginia resort owned by Governor Jim Justicea Republican running for the state Senate seat.
But his chances of winning the presidency would be extremely long, especially at this relatively late date.
“I wouldn’t say he can’t or won’t run, but I know he’s never run for something he doesn’t want to win,” said Phil Smith, a longtime lobbyist. date and party leader. United Mine Workers of America and an ally of Mr. Manchin. “When you look at independent presidential candidates, even the best-known ones, those who started so late never got more than 2 to 3 percent of the vote.”
Then there is the question of Mr. Manchin’s age. He is 76 years old and would enter a race with increased attention and concern over the age of President Biden, 80, and the likely Republican nominee, former President Donald J. Trump, 77.
One thing Mr. Manchin has always appreciated since winning a special Senate election in 2010, when he was governor of West Virginia, is the attention that comes with a critical vote when Democrats control the chamber.
It often provided him with a platform that made him popular among cable TV bookers and centrist donors, while drawing the ire of progressive activists in the Democratic Party. He said this summer that he think “seriously” about leaving the Democratic Party.
“If he sees that Biden continues to be the Democratic nominee and Trump the Republican nominee, I think he really sees a large part of the American electorate, both Republican and Democratic, being fed up with the candidates of both their parties ” the former representative said. Nick Rahall, a fellow West Virginia Democrat who has known Mr. Manchin for decades.
For months this year, Mr. Manchin approached No Labels, which has so far gained election access in 12 states in its attempt to offer an alternative to Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. The group’s president, Nancy Jacobson, told potential donors that the group intends to select a Republican to lead his ticket, a decision that would exclude Mr. Manchin if No Labels maintains this position.
One candidate openly teasing a No Labels campaign, Larry Hogan, the former Republican governor of Maryland, released a video on foreign policy On Tuesday, it sounded like a campaign ad, denouncing his party’s isolationism and declaring himself “a Reagan guy.”
Mr. Hogan appeared at a Bloomberg event last month and said that when he spoke with No Labels officials and donors, “most of them now assume it should be a Republican at the top of the list.”
No Labels has methodically moved forward with its potential presidential campaign, revealing a manifesto – a kind of platform — in July and is holding on centrist events. They featured a rotating cast of characters, including Mr. Manchin, Mr. Hogan and Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor and moderate Republican.
The group plans to raise $70 million before a convention in Dallas scheduled for April. But No Labels officials say they will decide whether to announce that campaign before then, perhaps after Super Tuesday on March 5, when the Republican presidential primary could be nearly over.
The decision could come sooner as the field of presidential candidates outside the major parties continues to widen.
On Thursday, Jill Stein, whose presence on the ballot in 2016 may have helped secure the White House for Mr. Trump, joined Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the iconoclastic vaccine skeptic, and Cornel West, the left-wing academics, as challengers. to Republican and Democratic candidates. Ms. Stein will seek to represent the Green Partyas she did in 2016.
But No Labels’ efforts to secure a spot on the ballot in all 50 states appear to have stalled at 12. Thirty-four states allow a group like No Labels to claim a reserved spot without a candidate, but 16 others and the District of Columbia requires a ticket.
“They’re not going to run a campaign in 50 states,” said Mr. Smith, a lobbyist and union official. “They just aren’t.”
There will be no shortage of unsolicited advice from Democrats for Mr. Manchin regarding his plans.
Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist Democratic group Third Way, which is organizing efforts to stop No Labels and dissuade Mr. Manchin from joining his group, said he was “not worried” about Mr. Manchin running as independent candidate.
Rahna Epting, executive director of the progressive group MoveOn, said Thursday that Mr. Manchin should “reject any opening of the dangerous No Labels scheme.”