CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senator Joe Manchin has opted out of running for governor of West Virginia, but other Democrats might now be weighing whether to jump in.
“I think It’ll be competitive now,” said state Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion. “Joe opened the door.”
The question is who could take the opening.
Few names immediately bubbled up, although there was a lot of talk from political observers about attributes: Charisma. Enough personal wealth for significant self-funding. And a philosophy at the right spot on the political spectrum. Name recognition is a plus but not mandatory.
“I think it’s going to be energetic. I think it’s going to be interesting. “You’re going to see some people now who will move,” Manchin said, not naming names. “I think there are some people who will jump forward that are good candidates and make it an exciting, interesting primary.”
He added, “I think the next week or two will unveil a lot. And I don’t know anything, other than I hear a lot of chatter.”
Manchin has been talking for months about a possible return run for governor and said he would make a decision right after Labor Day. On Tuesday morning, he announced he would opt out of a run for governor, saying his work in the Senate is too vital to give up.
Speaking with reporters on Tuesday afternoon, Manchin said he believes the governor’s race is likely to heat up.
“Hopefully, you’re going to see a vigorous campaign in the state,” Manchin said during a half-hour news conference in Charleston. “Don’t know who all, but I think you will see a lot of activity.”
In response to a reporter’s question about whether he has any preferred potential candidates, Manchin said he does not.
“No, I don’t have any candidate at all. I don’t know who might come forward. The field is wide open,” Manchin said. “I wish everybody luck. Anybody who wants to put their name on the ballot, I wish them the best.”
The most active gubernatorial campaign among Democrats has been Stephen Smith, former director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition.
Smith raised more than $146,000 during first financial reporting period for candidates. His campaign also points to 114 town halls already across the state’s 55 counties.
Reacting to Manchin opting out of the governor’s race, Smith said his campaign is about more than just one person. The constituents matter more than the candidate, he said.
“What our state needed yesterday is the same today,” he said. “West Virginia needs a movement, not a king.
Never in our history have we won the kind of change our state desperately needs because of one politician. A politician didn’t lead mineworkers into the Battle of Blair Mountain. A politician didn’t desegregate our lunch counters. A politician didn’t spark the Black Lung strikes or the 55 United strike.
“No elected official — not Jim Justice, not Joe Manchin, not me — can save us. We have to save ourselves. So while the media and political class were watching this soap opera unfold, our volunteers were busy building a people’s political machine around the state.”
Manchin was asked about Smith’s campaign and praised him personally but withheld comment on Smith’s political views.
“Stephen is a fine young man. I’ve known Stephen for a long time,” Manchin said. “He’s well-intended. I haven’t seen the policies in terms of his run for governor.”
One of Manchin’s longtime political advisers, Mike Plante, suggested that Smith may prove too progressive for West Virginia’s conservative political leanings, especially with President Donald Trump at the top of the Republican ticket.
“I think a lot of people are still looking for someone other than a Stephen Smith because it’s hard to see a path to victory for a candidate at the far left in a state that is red,” said Plante, who was campaign spokesman for progressive Charlotte Pritt when she beat Manchin in the 1996 Democratic primary for governor.
Others may be tempted to enter the race, Plante said, but they need to be prepared to put up their own money.
“That candidate needs to be someone who can self finance or who has the appeal to raise significant amounts of money,” Plante said.
Plante acknowledged it’s daunting to challenge an incumbent like Republican Gov. Jim Justice. But he noted Justice’s own legal, financial and political issues could make him vulnerable.
Justice already faces two active Republican primary candidates, former state Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher and former Delegate Mike Folk.
The most recent MetroNews West Virginia Poll showed about as many people approve of Justice as disapprove of him.
Justice has overall approval of 42 percent, according to the poll. He has a disapproval of 40 percent. The rest say they are not sure.
Of those who approve of Justice, only a slice of 10 percent report strong approval.
“If you had a Gaston Caperton-type candidate, with all the problems Justice has faced and is facing there would be a lot of people who would be willing to bet money on that race,” said Plante, referring to the insurance executive who was elected governor as a Democrat in 1989.
“Since Joe Manchin has taken a pass, I think national funders are still waiting to see if someone else is going to get into this race.”
Prezioso, the longtime senator who now serves as minority leader, agreed that Justice could be defeated. He noted that although West Virginia races have tilted Republican, Democrats still lead in overall registration, 490,533 to 402,844.
“I think he’s vulnerable. It’s mostly Democrats in this state anyway,” Prezioso said. “He really hasn’t produced.”
Prezioso said some members of his caucus have talked about running for governor. One of those is Senator Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician from Madison.
“I’d definitely say there’s probably at least one or two of our Senate Democrats who are thinking about it,” Prezioso said.
But he also drew a comparison with former Governor Caperton to say a competitive Democrat could have a strong pocketbook but relatively little political experience.
“There’s room for somebody out there like a Gaston Caperton who has a clean slate, a little bit of money, some business experience, who could win it,” Prezioso said.
“I don’t know that the next governor has registered to run yet.”