In some ways, it's almost a risk-free political choice because Manchin can try to return to the governor's office, the job he had before joining the Senate, without forfeiting his Senate seat or complicating his party's drive to control Congress.
If he decides to run for governor and wins, conceivably he could even temporarily name his own successor in the Senate. But as a rare Democrat who can win a statewide race in a state that has fallen hard for President Donald Trump, Manchin's decision will be telling.
On the one hand, the Senate may be losing its luster as Manchin, whose party is in the minority, is bumping up against the limits of Democrats' power. Yet rather than continue trying to work with the president, as he is known to do, Manchin probably would have to confront Trump, who has been an ally of incumbent Republican Gov. Jim Justice.
So far, Manchin appears to be keeping a quiet counsel, traveling the state this past week, but holding his thinking close. He declined a request for an interview with The Associated Press. "I've had a lot of inquiries they want me to come back home," Manchin told CBS' "Face the Nation" in an interview Aug. 18. "I have people think that maybe I should stay."
Manchin has offered few clues even to his own party. Over a dozen state senators questioned Manchin at a closed-door meeting this spring, warning that his indecisiveness is hamstringing other Democratic hopefuls while giving Trump and the national Republicans ample time to assemble behind Justice, according to Sen. Roman Prezioso, the Democratic leader of the GOP-majority state Senate.
Manchin kept mum, telling the lawmakers he needed time to talk to his family before making up his mind. "They were pressing him hard," Prezioso said. "It was like a family get-together at Christmas — arguing, wanting to choke each other and then we were all friends at the end."
Justice, a billionaire whose businesses have been trailed by lawsuits alleging unpaid bills , has bet on the state's love of Trump to carry him through damaging news stories and into a second term. In April, he hired current and former Trump staffers to lead his 2020 campaign after a federal subpoena was sent to his administration and state Republican committees approved "no confidence" resolutions in him. During a spat with Senate Republicans over an education bill this summer, Justice proclaimed he and Trump are "bound at the hip" as a top GOP lawmaker called him an "embarrassment" and demanded his resignation.
"The president is really popular in West Virginia and the governor's ability to ride those coattails could take a lot off the problems he's having," said Marybeth Beller, a political scientist who teaches at Marshall University in West Virginia.
The results of Manchin's last election, in which he ran against a Trump-backed opponent for his Senate seat, could also inform his political calculations. He narrowly won reelection by just over 3% after the president held rallies in West Virginia for his opponent, a stark contrast to the 24% walloping he put on his challenger in 2012.
There's also payback to consider. Manchin was governor from 2005 to 2010, until he left to run for the Senate, but he very publicly considered returning home to run again for governor again in the 2016 race. Instead, Manchin endorsed Justice, who ran for governor as a Democrat in 2016. Manchin threw his weight behind the businessman to help Justice win support from fellow Democrats and eventually edge out a crowded field of competitors. But less than a year later, in front of a roaring Trump rally crowd, Justice announced he was switching parties because Democrats had "walked away" from him.
"Of course Joe's going to feel betrayed by that," said Prezioso. Steady jabs back-and-forth have ensued between Justice and Manchin, even as the senator remains a question mark over the governor's race.
In a March news release about then-special counsel Robert Mueller, Justice made room to call Manchin "one of those loud Washington liberals" who hasn't embraced Trump. Zeroing in on a more local issue, Justice laid blame on Manchin for the state's neglected road system.
Manchin returned fire, saying "knowing Jim Justice's character, it's not a surprise for him to make a comment like this. He blames others for the work he hasn't done." And when state officials were celebrating a $37 million settlement with the opioid distributor McKesson in May, Manchin was quick to criticize the dollar figure. In a stinging statement, he said Justice didn't "care enough to fight for the money that West Virginia deserves."
Given their history, a 2020 race between the former friends and current foes could roil the state's political landscape, and get downright dirty in the process. "We're looking at it and I want to do what I can to help my state of West Virginia," Manchin told CBS. "It's always been about West Virginia for me."
Mascaro reported from Washington.