West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced a party switch Thursday evening in a surprise appearance with President Donald Trump in Huntington, W.Va.
“Today I will tell you, with lots of prayers and lots of thinking, I can’t help you anymore being a Democrat governor,” Justice said. “So tomorrow I will be changing my registration to Republican.”
Justice’s flip is further confirmation of his state’s sharp rightward turn, and reflects Trump’s widespread popularity in a state the president won by a landslide in 2016.
Trump, who has promised to restore lost coal industry jobs, has lavished attention on West Virginia since taking office.
Justice, who seldom worked with other Democrats, recently spent a well-publicized day hunting with Donald Trump Jr. — a familiar political optic in a largely rural state with a strong hunting tradition. But his move still blindsided his old party, which is now left with control of just 15 governor mansions.
Rumors that Justice was going to make the switch circulated throughout the day but West Virginia Democrats and multiple national Democrats who have worked for Justice in the past said he gave them no advance notice on the party switch.
“We are sitting here in our office, everyone of us that is capable of standing on two feet, looking at each other saying, ‘oh my goodness, did anybody see this coming?” said Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “I am surprised. However, when I worked with Gov. Justice during the last session of the legislature, I could plainly see that he is a pragmatist who is trying to get things done and is not driven by ideological or party loyalty. And he has a close connection to the Trump family and it is my hope that this will further solidify a national attention in favor of policies that will help economic development, job creation and education in West Virginia.”
Former Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall described the governor as a close friend who put West Virginia first.
“Jim is a West Virginian true and blue and does what is best for West Virginia,” Rahall said. “That’s his number one goal. His every move as governor has been in that direction. I have not discussed this situation with him to know what moved him to switch parties but suffice it to say that much of West Virginia’s been voting late this way. But most of the state is registered Democrats so I’m sure he read the political winds.”
Privately, the mood among many West Virginia Democrats was less understanding. Despite West Virginia’s embrace of Republicans on the federal level, Democrats had held the state’s governorship since 2001.
“Obviously we’re pissed. I mean let’s face it, we put a lot of effort in the 2015 election to elect this man as governor,” a top West Virginia Democratic operative said. “And we had two more progressive individuals in that primary but we knew that if Jim Justice went out of that primary he could win. So I mean, a lot people are pissed. There’s a lot of hurt feelings. People are feeling betrayed right now.”
The Democratic Governors Association had worked closely with Justice on his gubernatorial run, and combined with labor unions to spend about $1 million helping defeat GOP state Senate President Bill Cole. Justice, a populist-minded billionaire like Trump, funded much of his run out of his own fortune, made in the agriculture, coal, timber and tourism industries. Despite his status as the richest man in the state, he still lived in the house he grew up in and coached high school basketball.
Justice will not be a stranger in his new party. He’s friends with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and donated to McConnell’s super PAC in 2014. He also donated to the Republican Governors Association just a few years before the RGA spent millions of dollars trying to defeat him in 2016, attacking him for failing to pay taxes and fines related to his businesses.
The governor’s move stands to make the coming months more complicated for Sen. Joe Manchin, who now stands as the state’s most prominent Democrat ahead of a tough re-election challenge in 2018. Manchin — a moderate Democrat who is often criticized by his own party’s left wing — was already a top GOP target, with Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrissey challenging him.
“I certainly have wondered what the impact is likely to be on Manchin,” said Roberts. “There had been some speculation that Manchin was going to change parties from earlier on. If Manchin is taken by surprise, my guess is that he just has a lot to think about.”
Manchin’s office declined to comment on Justice’s switch but said that the senator would continue to “be a proud West Virginia Democrat.”
In a sign of the charged politics surrounding Trump, Manchin — who has maintained good relations with the White House — issued a long statement welcoming Trump to the state Thursday.
“The President is coming to West Virginia, and I’m excited he is,” Manchin said. “I know some Democrats, especially those in Washington, D.C., would not want the President to visit their state. As Americans, we should always be honored to have a President visit our state whoever he or she is regardless of political party. All Americans should hope for the President to succeed, because if he does the country succeeds and West Virginia does as well.”
When Trump touches down in the state Thursday, he will be visiting the place that explains his surprise 2016 victory as well as the challenges of turning his campaign promises into tangible results.
Commentators were often left scratching their heads at Trump’s dark campaign rhetoric and description of a nation in decline, crushed by job loss, drugs and rising crime. In much of the country, particularly the urban centers Trump so often derided, the rhetoric simply did not match with reality.
But West Virginia was an exception. Trump’s promises to renew American greatness, to “bring back jobs” and restore an idealized version of the American worker struck a chord in a long-suffering state. Trump won 68 percent of the vote there against Hillary Clinton, carrying every one of the state’s 55 counties. In the state’s coal-producing counties, he regularly racked up more than 70 and 80 percent of the vote.
“The demographic profile sort of fits your hypothetical Trump voter — we’re older, we’re lower income, lower levels of education, not very ethnically diverse,” said Sean O’Leary, a senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “If you were to take a stereotypical Trump voter it would look a lot like a stereotypical West Virginian.”
For many in the state, Trump’s dystopian rhetoric felt like a long-awaited acknowledgment. The state’s population peaked around 1950 and, after some rebounding growth over the past two decades, has begun to shrink again since 2010. It has one of the country’s lowest median household incomes at $42,824, well below the national average of $56,516. The life expectancy is more than 3 years below the national average, and in 2015 the rate of opioid overdose deaths was 3.6 times as high in West Virginia as nationwide. The state also had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths overall.
The economic scene is almost as bleak: The state’s labor force participation rate is just 53.1 percent, meaning almost half of the state’s adults are neither working or looking for jobs.
For an electorate that the Chamber’s Roberts described as “rural populist,” Trump’s campaign pledge not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security carried special resonance. In supporting Republican health care plans since his inauguration, though, Trump has reneged on the promise to protect Medicaid.
But that has done little to dent his popularity in West Virginia, where much of his appeal is wrapped in his promise to restore the state’s coal industry. The industry, deeply entwined with the state’s culture even as it wanes in economic importance, has seen a stark decline in recent years.
Coal mining jobs declined by half from 2011 to 2016, with the Commerce Department tallying just 11,343 coal miners in the state by the end of 2016 — down from more than 23,000 in 2011. Total mining and logging jobs, though, have increased by about 2,400 over the last year, with 1,200 of those jobs coming just between May and June — a sign that Trump’s policies are working, supporters say.
“We love our coal miners. Great people,” Trump said at an executive order signing in March. “Over the past two years, I’ve spent time with the miners all over America. They told me about the struggles they’ve endured. I actually, in one case, I went to a group of miners in West Virginia — you remember, Shelley — and I said, how about this: Why don’t we get together, we’ll go to another place, and you’ll get another job; you won’t mine anymore. Do you like that idea? They said, no, we don’t like that idea — we love to mine, that’s what we want to do. I said, if that’s what you want to do, that’s what you’re going to do. And I was very impressed. They love the job. That’s what their job is. I fully understand that.”
At a rally in the state during the campaign, Trump famously put on a coal miner’s helmet and mimed as though he was shoveling while the crowd roared.
“We have a tradition of mining and producing coal that people here are really proud of,” Roberts said, noting that Trump’s pro-mining rhetoric – particularly after the Obama administration sought to curtail coal production due to environmental concerns — was a breath of fresh air.
“Plain-spokenness is not considered offensive here, the fact that he just sort of calls it like he sees it,” Roberts said. “There probably is a very real feeling that the nation hasn’t done much to help our state during at least the eight years of the Obama administration and now we have a president that says, ‘I like coal, I support the military, I love the Boy Scouts.’”
“The President is proud to have the support of the men and women in places like West Virginia who had been left behind by the policies of the previous administration,” White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters said in a statement to POLITICO. “He’s working for them each and every day, unleashing American businesses and protecting their communities. Just look at the results he’s already gotten. 42,000 mining and logging jobs have been added since January, and a new coal mine has opened its doors. The much-needed resources of the federal government are refocused towards combating the epidemic of drug and opioid addiction. He’s getting better trade deals with our partners around the world. And this is only the beginning.”
Powered by WPeMatico