Justice switches parties even as GOP opposes him
Jim Justice, the Republican-turned-Democrat who won the governor’s mansion in 2016, rejoined the Republican Party at a rally with Donald Trump on Aug. 3, just hours after West Virginia Republicans called him “low energy” and “sad.”
The rally, which was held in Huntington, was designed to gin up support for Trump’s agenda after a surprising failure by Senate Republicans to repeal or replace the Affordable Care Act.
The governor hasn’t received the warmest of welcomes from West Virginia’s Republicans. Approximately five hours before the planned rally, the Twitter account of the West Virginia Republican Party (@WVGOP) posted “Low-Energy @WVGovernor Refuses To Stop Millions of $$ In Contracts To Companies Who Cheated WV Taxpayers. Sad!” The post included a link to an article from the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Aside from the ill-timed Twitter trolling, his new party’s state executive committee voted nearly unanimously to oppose his road bond referendum which faces voters in a special election on Oct. 7.
If the referendum passes, bonds will be sold by the state to pay for road maintenance around the state. Tax increases, passed by the Republican controlled legislature, are already in effect and will assist in paying down the bond debt.
Justice, the richest person in West Virginia, has drawn numerous comparisons to Trump since he announced his candidacy for governor, including his lack of previous political experience and penchant for donating to candidates of both major political parties. He faced former United States Attorney Booth Goodwin and former President of the West Virginia Senate Jeff Kessler in the primary. Justice received 51 percent of the vote, Goodwin 25 percent, and Kessler 23 percent.
Bill Cole, then president of the West Virginia Senate, was nominated by Republicans and captured 42 percent in the general election to Justice’s 49 percent. Mountain Party candidate Charlotte Pritt, a former Democratic state senator and gubernatorial nominee herself, tallied just short of 6 percent of the vote.
Justice didn’t endorse Trump last year, but refused to endorse Hillary Clinton. Trump went on to win West Virginia by 42 percent, his best showing in the country.
Party switching in West Virginia has become more common in the past 10 years, but has largely been committed by members of the state legislature.
In 2013 then West Virginia State Senator Evan Jenkins became a Republican to challenge United States Representative Nick Joe Rahall in 2014. Jenkins was successful and now, just 4 years later, is vying for the Republican nomination to face United States Senator Joe Manchin in 2018. That same year West Virginia Delegate Ryan Ferns, also became a Republican and is now serving in the West Virginia Senate.
The most consequential party flip in West Virginia in recent memory occurred following the 2014 General Election. The West Virginia State Senate was split evenly with 17 Democrats and 17 Republicans. Daniel Hall, of Wyoming County, left the Democratic Party, giving Republicans 18 seats and the majority for the first time in approximately 80 years. Within a year, though, Hall announced his resignation from his seat to accept a position from the National Rifle Association. After a lengthy legal battle, the West Virginia Supreme Court decreed that the appointed replacement must be of the same party as the person who resigned at the time of his or her resignation.
It’s quite uncommon in American politics to find a governor or federal level office holder who switches parties whilst in office. United States Senator Arlen Spector (R-PA) was the last Senator to change parties while still seated. He became a Democrat.
Since announcing his party change, Justice has already lost Chief of Staff Nick Casey, a former chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party and other departures appear imminent.
H. S. Leigh Koonce is a sixth-generation West Virginian. He writes from Jefferson County.