West Virginia Gov. Leaves Dem. Party for Greener Pastures

West Virginia Gov. Leaves Dem. Party for Greener Pastures

More specifically, Governor Jim Justice is heading for pastures that are less concerned with being ‘green.' That pasture, of course, being the Republican Party.

Jim Justice and Trump have much in common. Like the president, Justice is the billionaire owner of over fifty companies- some of them coal-related- including West Virginia’s most well-known destination vacation, The Greenbrier. He ran for political office for the first time in 2015, winning the governor’s office in part by exuding a colorful personality and keeping his opponents on their toes through the occasional half-truthful jab.

Like Trump, Justice has been both a registered Republican and Democrat in his lifetime, and is no stranger to changes of political mind. Both refused to endorse Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate, and now Justice and Trump are aligned along the same party line, the reasons for their coalition are many.

Justice ran as a conservative Democrat in a state which has seen elected Democratic officials drop likes flies in recent years. The national party’s open criticism of and intent to curtail and eventually shut down coal has played a large part in the reddening of the state. Labor unions no longer give their allegiances the Democrats– once the labor party– because their unions are worth little without the coal industry thriving.

Now, only one Democratic Senator from West Virginia, Joseph Manchin III, remains, and he will not have the support of the governor for re-election. In West Virginia, the Democrats are a party on the run.

It is a foreseeable result when one considers that the elimination of the coal industry is priority number one on the checklist of true environmentalists and climate changers, who have come to dominate the base of the Democratic Party. Justice decided that, while he had engaged in talks with Democrats that would adhere to their party principles while keeping West Virginia economically viable, they were at an untenable stalemate:

The reality that Donald Trump won the presidential vote in West Virginia by 67%, compared to Justice’s 49% of votes in the gubernatorial race, surely made it easier for Justice to ally himself with the prevailing camp. But Justice was never known as a hardcore liberal or even a traditional Democrat, so a move such as this, while surprising, is not a bombshell.

However, the news is surprising when framed within the context of recent Democratic loyalty to the party. For governors, Justice’s move marks the first switch from Democrat to Republican since 1991, and it is a continued blow to the ailing Democratic party bereft of leadership or any coherent agenda. Justice’s switch means that Republicans now reside in 34 governor’s mansions, with Democrats in only 15.

Both sides are trading versions of Justice’s motives for the switch. Donald Trump and other Republicans paint justice as a man duped by the promise of compromise to get elected on the Democratic ticket, only to learn that the Democrats had no intention of compromising when it comes to coal and the jobs it creates in West Virginia. For the sake of his people, his supporters say, Justice had no choice but to align himself with the jobs-first Trump campaign:

“Governor Justice did something else important tonight. He showed the country that our agenda rises above left or right,” Trump said. “It’s an agenda for all of the people, especially for the tens of millions of forgotten people. (Washington Post)

Trump’s support of the coal industry and economically beleaguered regions of the country in general were likely most responsible for the party switch. The president’s immense popularity in the state certainly didn’t hurt.

But, to hear Democrats tell it, Justice’s change of heart carries implications relating to the president and- where else- Russia!

“As Republicans have repeatedly said, Jim Justice owes millions of dollars in unpaid company taxes, after a deal with a Russian coal company. The debts have only worsened during Justice’s term as governor,” DGA executive director Elisabeth Pearson said in a statement. “If President Trump cut a deal, we hope it does not put U.S. taxpayers on the hook to bail out Jim Justice’s personal finances.”

The Democratic Governor’s Association has also accused Justice of “deceiving the voters of West Virginia when he ran as a Democrat 8 months ago.”

The latter allegation seems more reasonable, though one has to add that Justice was elected as a Democrat when he could have run as a conservative. It would appear more likely that treatment of coal by Democrats and the allegations of promises reneged-upon which Justice levied through insinuation against the Democratic Party are more compelling.

Regardless of the specific motive, and whether the decision can be boiled down to a single reason at all, is not completely relevant now, aside from strategizing future candidates to flip to the right side.

What matters most is that the Republicans gained another governor, another state’s highest leadership, and another step-up in the everlasting turf war with Democrats. And they didn’t even have to finance a campaign to do so.