Red-State Voters Give Democrats Tester, Manchin Opposite Marks Ahead of 2024
58% of Montana voters approve of Tester, while 55% of West Virginia voters disapprove of Manchin.
Among the 59% of Montana voters who disapprove of Biden, 42% of them give Tester positive marks.
Gov. Jim Justice (R-W.Va.), a likely Senate candidate, is more popular than Manchin among Democrats, independents and Republicans.
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Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia are expected to face among the toughest political environments as the Democratic Party attempts to hold the Senate next year, given that the two incumbents hail from states where President Joe Biden performed poorly against then-President Donald Trump in 2020.
But the Montanan is beginning the cycle with a huge popularity advantage, while Manchin remains among the country’s most unpopular politicians — fraught territory in the face of an expected challenge by his state’s popular Republican governor, Jim Justice, according to the Morning Consult’s latest quarterly approval ratings.
America’s Most Popular and Unpopular Senators
Surveys conducted between Jan. 1 and March 31 show that 58% of Montana voters approve of Tester’s job performance, making him one of America’s most popular senators. In West Virginia, Manchin’s standing appears in the inverse, with 55% of voters giving him negative marks — landing him again among America’s most unpopular senators.
The latest figures mark a continuation of a significant change in standing for the two politicians over the past two years.
Tester Continues to Outshine 2024’s Other Vulnerable Incumbents
Tester’s approval rating steadily improved in 2022, while Manchin’s standing plummeted after he agreed to support Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. Since then, Manchin’s approval rating has continued to decline despite his best efforts to distance himself from national Democrats.
Tester’s standing in Montana
When Tester announced his plans to run for re-election in February, his campaign highlighted his support among a “broad coalition of Montanans.” Tester has honed an outsider image despite his time in Washington, placing distance between himself and the national Democratic Party.
“That's how you run in Montana: You run essentially by yourself and are authentic,” said Bill Lombardi, Tester’s former Senate office state director.
Tester boasts a notable distinction from other vulnerable incumbent Democrats: A good chunk of the people who disapprove of Biden’s job performance approve of his.
Of Vulnerable Democrats, Tester Performs Best Among Voters Who Disapprove of Biden
Among the 59% of Montanans who disapprove of Biden, 42% of them give Tester positive marks. That’s above the 34% of Biden's disapprovers in West Virginia who approve of Manchin's job performance, or the 27% of Biden's dislikers in Ohio who approve of Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
Tester’s “not an ideologue or super partisan, he’s a down to earth farmer,” Lombardi said. "He’s a populist. He's got a libertarian streak in him.”
That helped Tester fend off a re-election challenger in the 2018 midterm elections, when he defeated now-Rep. Matt Rosendale (R) by roughly 4 percentage points. But popularity isn’t everything in electoral politics — especially in a federal race in a presidential election year. That was evidenced by Montana’s 2020 Senate race, in which the state’s popular Democratic governor at the time, Steve Bullock, suffered a double-digit loss to incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines.
One senior national Republican strategist suggested that a similar scenario to 2020 would play out in Montana next year, noting that in recent election cycles fewer voters of one party have supported a candidate of the other party even if they personally like them.
To beat him, Republicans are eyeing Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen or businessman Tim Sheehy, and many expect Rosendale to launch a bid. A GOP-backed proposal that could have hurt Tester's re-election chances by attempting to bar third-party candidates from the general election ballot is likely dead after it was shelved by a state legislative committee on April 19.
Popular Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte has declined to run, instead backing Sheehy’s potential bid. Daines, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, could also get involved as the party works to avoid nominating someone who could hurt its chances of defeating a Democratic incumbent in a reddening state.
Manchin’s standing in West Virginia
In West Virginia, Manchin — once one of America’s most popular senators — has seen his popularity crumble, and national Republicans are hoping to recruit Justice, who is term limited, to challenge him. That contest would pit one of the country’s most unpopular incumbents against one of its most popular, according to the latest quarterly surveys.
America's Most Popular and Unpopular Governors
Surveys conducted Jan. 1-March 31, 2023, among representative samples of registered voters in each state, with unweighted margins of error of +/-1 to 5 percentage points.
Two in 3 West Virginia voters (66%) approve of Justice’s job performance, making him the fourth most popular governor in the country after Republican Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and just above Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, who faces re-election this fall.
A Republican source close to Justice said he is in regular contact with the party’s national campaign apparatus and is expected to soon announce a Senate bid. Justice hasn’t announced yet in part because he hopes to launch his campaign with Trump’s formal endorsement, two Republicans familiar with the matter said.
In Justice, national Republicans see a candidate who could overcome Manchin’s deep roots and political resilience as a Democrat in a dark-red state, driven in part by the governor's enormous appeal to people who also like Manchin, whose popularity is far worse than it was at a similar point in the 2018 cycle.
“Manchin's always a tough beat but he's in a weaker position than ever before and will be on the ballot with Biden or whoever replaces Biden on the ticket,” said Chris Hartline, a Republican strategist and former NRSC official. “Pretty much a nightmare scenario.”
Justice Is Much More Popular Than Manchin in West Virginia
Almost every voter who approves of Manchin’s job performance (86%) gave a thumbs up to Justice, and he boasts stronger backing from West Virginians of all political stripes, including among Democrats (52% to 49%) and independents (63% to 35%).
It wasn’t always like this for Manchin, who was one of America’s most popular senators when he was tapping the brakes on Biden’s “Build Back Better” policy agenda. It sparked a large coalitional shift that earned him high marks with Republicans and independents, but that all evaporated when he gave his decisive support to the Inflation Reduction Act in July.
Manchin has yet to announce re-election plans, sparking speculation among some that the 75-year-old might not run. But Jonathan Kott, a former aide who’s close to the Democratic senator, noted that Manchin wasn’t quick to launch a bid when he was last on the ballot in 2018 either.
“He doesn’t need to set up a campaign apparatus, he has 100% name ID and he can raise as much money as he needs as he wants,” he said. “There’s going to be a Republican primary, so why involve yourself in that?”
Indeed, a potential primary contest between Justice and Rep. Alex Mooney, who announced a Senate bid earlier this year, could be messy. If Trump does endorse Justice, it could set up a proxy fight between Republican leadership and the conservative Club for Growth, which is backing Mooney.
As Manchin watches that develop, he’s hoping his bet on the Inflation Reduction Act pays off in the long run and that Congress passes a permitting reform law that would speed approval of a planned pipeline in his home state — a hope that’s reliant on Republicans effectively doing him a favor.
“By the time the election rolls around, there's probably going to be 10,000-15,000 new jobs created because of the Inflation Reduction Act. If he gets permitting reform done, there’ll be a pipeline that gets up and running,” Kott said. “I think all those things are pretty good campaign messages.”
For Morning Consult’s state-level survey data, weights are applied to each state separately based on age, gender, education, race, home ownership, marital status, presidential voting history and — for a subset of states — race by education as well as an age-by-gender interaction.
Margins of error for responses from all voters in each state range from plus or minus 1 to 5 percentage points.
For more detailed information, you can download the 50-state data set for approval ratings here.
This story has been updated to reflect news that the Montana Legislature shelved a proposed changed to Montana's 2024 U.S. Senate primary.
Eli Yokley is Morning Consult’s U.S. politics analyst. Prior to his current role, Eli was Morning Consult’s senior reporter covering U.S. politics. Eli joined Morning Consult in 2016 from Roll Call, where he reported on House and Senate campaigns after five years of covering state-level politics in the Show Me State while studying at the University of Missouri in Columbia, including contributions to The New York Times, Politico and The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter @eyokley. Interested in connecting with Eli to discuss his analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].