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West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice to decide on race for Joe Manchin's Senate seat by end of February

Manchin says "I have no intentions" of changing parties
Manchin says "I have no intentions" of changing parties as of now 11:20

West Virginia's Republican governor, Jim Justice, told CBS News he will decide by the end of February whether he will run for the Senate held by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in 2024, a decision that could upend the race and the balance of power in the Senate.  

Justice's openness to running raises the prospect of a blockbuster head-to-head battle between the state's two foremost political leaders:  Justice and Manchin, the state's longtime senator who also previously served as governor.

Justice, who switched parties to become a Republican just months into his first term as governor in 2017, said he is confident in his chances of ousting Manchin.

"I know the people of West Virginia. I know really and truly that they've been left in the dust and they really believe in me and trust me."

Melania Trump
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., left, accompanied by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, center, and First lady Melania Trump, right, speaks at a roundtable on the opioid epidemic at Cabell-Huntington Health Center in Huntington, WVa., Monday, July 8, 2019. Andrew Harnik / AP

Manchin has been a pivotal swing vote in Congress, confirming scores of President Joe Biden's nominees. He was also the clinching vote that helped Democrats pass the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, directing hundreds of billions of dollars in energy investments, reductions in prescription drug costs and deficit reduction.  

But he has also frustrated his party by siding with Republicans on some critical votes, including the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. 

After a town hall meeting Tuesday in the Eastern Panhandle city of Martinsburg, Justice told CBS News he's giving serious consideration to a run for the Senate and wouldn't be influenced by whether Manchin seeks reelection.

"I'm a patriot. I really am. And I think our nation is going in a direction that could be our demise," Justice said, criticizing the economy, immigration and military policies.

Justice would deliver a significant rightward shift for his state's delegation in the Senate.  He told CBS News he would expect to be a "reliably Republican" vote and would not cut the same moderate figure or generate the nuanced voting record delivered by Manchin.

"I'm rock-solid as a Republican and being entrenched in those values," Justice said, despite the fact that he was once the standard bearer for the state Democratic Party in campaigning for governor in 2016.      

Democrats already face a complex and potentially foreboding election cycle in the Senate in 2024. The party must defend seats in Ohio, Montana, Pennsylvania, Arizona and West Virginia.   Donald Trump won the Mountain State overwhelmingly in 2016 and 2020. Justice himself told CBS News he remains a Trump supporter and would vote for Trump, if the former president is the party's nominee for the White House in 2024.

West Virginia political analyst Hoppy Kercheval, who hosts the state's premiere political talk show and is the voice of a statewide radio network, said Justice would be a formidable candidate. Kercheval said, "Justice has won statewide both as a Democrat and as a Republican. That indicates his appeal transcends traditional party affiliation."

"There is a genuineness about Justice that is very appealing.  When he talks about how much he cares about West Virginia and its people, it rings true," Kercheval said.

But Kercheval said Justice is dogged by physical mobility challenges that slow Justice's movements and could impact his ability to campaign in what could be an exhausting race. Kercheval said, "Justice appears to be tireless, but physically he struggles to get around. That could be a detriment during a long and vigorous campaign."

Republicans already have one major declared candidate for the West Virginia Senate seat in 2024. GOP Rep. Alex Mooney won a heated primary to secure the West Virginia 2nd Congressional District in 2022, then coasted to victory in the heavily-Republican district in November's general election. A campaign strategist for Mooney told CBS News, "Jim Justice joined Senator Joe Manchin in supporting Joe Biden's trillion-dollar spending spree. Those polices were rejected last year in the Republican primary when Alex Mooney defeated the person endorsed by Justice and Manchin. Alex Mooney will win again next year."

Justice has already sharply criticized Mooney, ahead of a possible primary contest.  Justice told CBS News, "The people of West Virginia don't know Alex Mooney.  He can't possibly beat Joe Manchin."

A Manchin spokeswoman did not comment on Justice's possible candidacy. Earlier this month, Manchin told reporters he was not planning to run for governor in 2024, but he also hasn't said whether he intends to run for reelection to his Senate seat.

A Manchin aide told CBS News Tuesday the senator isn't expected to make a final decision on a reelection campaign until 2024, a timetable similar to the one he used in 2018 before announcing he'd run again. 

Manchin served as West Virginia governor until he successfully pursued his seat in the Senate.

"Joe Manchin will be formidable, I'll tell you that. If Joe and I are running (against each other) today, I win," Justice said, "The people of West Virginia really believe in me and trust me."

For longtime West Virginia residents and its political activists, a Manchin-Justice race could rise to the level of an unprecedented political battle for the ages in the state. Both are giants in the state and have the ability to tap into deep reservoirs of campaigns funds and donations.   

Ken Lowe, a Shephardstown, W. Va., real estate agent who also serves on the West Virginia Racing Commission said many in the state have deep relationships with both Justice and Manchin. Lowe said, "I couldn't make that decision. I'd look at Joe Manchin and say, 'I'm you're friend.' I'd look at Gov. Justice and say `I'm your friend.' I hope they don't run against each other. Tough choice. Very tough choice."

Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.

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