“Today I will tell you with lots of prayers and lots of thinking,” Justice yelled at a rally in the town of Huntington. “I can’t help you anymore being a Democrat governor. So tomorrow I will be changing my registration to Republican.”
The event was a Trump rally, no less.
Before entering politics, Jim Justice made a successful career in the coal industry in West Virginia. He is the state’s richest man and the only billionaire. He ran for governor in the 2016 election cycle as a first-time candidate.
In last year’s campaign, Justice defeated Republican Bill Cole – the state’s former Senate president – by about seven points. The Democratic Governors Association spent around $1 million helping Justice get elected to the governor’s mansion.
Despite winning by a healthy margin and the DGA spending liberally on his behalf (WV is a relatively cheap market), Justice felt it was necessary to change parties only seven months into his four-year term.
To hear it from Justice, he claims the Democrats in the state legislature became too difficult to work with. I have no doubt this is true, but there is obviously much more to the story.
West Virginia has been turning red for years. Now with the arrival of Donald Trump – a man who appeals to the same white working-class Americans that make up the state – the partisan alignment has made a complete shift.
The Mountain State used to be a blue bastion not long ago. Union membership dominated politics where coal mining was (and still is) the bloodline of the state. Before the 2000 election year, West Virginia Democrats controlled almost every statewide office, the state House, the state Senate, the entire Congressional delegation (all two senators and every U.S. House district) and WV residents voted Democrat for most presidential elections.
However, George W. Bush shook the electoral map when he won West Virginia by a squeaker against Al Gore in 2000.
It was this election that began the state’s rightward trajectory. Not because Republicans changed, but because the national Democratic Party changed. Bush’s team was able to hit Gore hard on environmental extremism and his antagonism towards the coal industry. West Virginia voters listened and opted for Bush.
Democrats continued their dominance at the local level during Bush’s presidency. However, under Obama’s tenure, their brand clearly plummeted.
Following the 2010 elections, Republicans gained the majority of U.S. House seats – the first time doing so since the 1940’s. The 2014 midterms were a pivotal year for WV Republicans: the GOP captured the majority of the state House, the majority of the state Senate, one U.S. Senate seat and all three U.S. House seats.
If 2014 was a pivotal election year, then 2016 was monumental. Donald Trump won West Virginia by over 40 points against Hillary Clinton. Such a decisive election came with strong down-ballot winds. The GOP built upon their state legislative majorities and captured all but two statewide offices.
Jim Justice was able to outperform Clinton incredibly, but he had to keep his distance to do so.
In a year when Republicans were keeping away from their party’s presidential candidate, Justice was quite the anomaly in that he was a Democrat who bashed his own party’s nominee. He continually said on the campaign trail that he was leaving his box blank at the top of the ticket on Election Day.
It’s hard to imagine a politician more disliked by Appalachia than Barack Obama – the 44th president was proactively aggressive against the coal community. However, Hillary Clinton takes the cake in being outright hateful towards coal workers. She soured her already-doomed chances in West Virginia when she said she wanted to put “coal miners and coal companies out of business” in March of 2016.
West Virginia was once deep blue because it was a union stronghold (of course, unions have always been strong opponents of the Republican Party and their free-market ways). But what do you do when you don’t even have a job to begin with? It’s hard to dictate how your union dues are spent when you’re not even taking home a paycheck. The Democratic Party may be pro-union, but they are, without a doubt, anti-coal. The monumental regulations placed on coal companies during the Obama era have led to massive job losses.
These communities are struggling.
Democrats gave coal miners reasons to be pushed away. Donald Trump gave them reasons to be pulled in.
Trump did not run as a traditional Republican. He ran a campaign that can be best described as conservative populist. His “America First” talking points – along with constant talk of free trade killing stateside workers – resonated with the working class like no other. Love him or hate him, Trump brought new voters into the GOP camp like no other Republican before him.
Without a doubt, Trump’s message resonated with traditional, working class and evangelical voters. While already trending red, Trump’s dominance last November in West Virginia catapulted a partisan shift that would have otherwise taken several more years to complete.
With all of this information laid out on the table, it’s really no surprise Justice changed teams.
The now-Republican governor said it best himself when speaking at the Trump rally: ““My mom and dad were staunch lovers of Ronald Reagan, staunch Republicans. My mom and dad, with no question in my mind, are in heaven right now, and they’re both saying the same thing, but my mom is saying it more profoundly: Jimmy, it’s about damn time you came to your senses.”