Monday, September 26, 2016

Race of the Day- West Virginia Governor

42 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Open
2012 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Leans Democrat

The Mountaineer State continues to confound politically in many ways. For decades, the culturally conservative state was about as solid as a bulwark for Democrats at all levels as could be found. Even as Republicans began to take over the favorite position in the state, in terms of Presidential politics, West Virginia remained solid Democrat down the ballot. During the Obama years, the GOP has made wide inroads in the state, electing a Republican U.S. Senator and all three U.S. House members. That success has translated to state legislative races, and there is no doubt that the state will be among Donald Trump's strongest in November. Still though, in what has to be a matter of frustration to Republicans, the Governorship is proving to be a hard nut to crack. Only a handful of times in the past few generations has the Gubernatorial office gone to a Republican and it last happened 20 years ago.

In late 2011, Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin, then the State Senate President, succeeded popular Governor Joe Manchin, when he was elected to fill a Senate vacancy. Republicans targeted both Manchin and Tomblin in special elections and regularly scheduled elections, but despite the circumstances fell short. Now, Tomblin is ineligible to seek another term as Governor, but Manchin was available, under state law, to once again try to win the job. Some thought he might want out of Washington D.C. and perhaps a difficult 2018 federal race. He would have been a prohibitive favorite to win another term as Governor, but decided to continue in the Senate instead. With that announcement, Republicans thought they had a real shot at picking up the Governorship.

While several Republicans were mentioned as potential contenders, the party rallied behind Bill Cole (a good name for a state where coal is such a major industry and political issue). With Republicans taking over the West Virginia Senate, Cole serves as President of the body and is the de facto Lt. Governor. Reading the political tea leaves of his state, Cole endorsed Trump back in May, just days before the primary election was held.

Democrats held a more competitive primary, but the outcome was pretty clear. Businessman Jim Justice, a very large and wealthy man, who had run a coal company, easily defeated former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, and State Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, who had lost a Gubernatorial race in 2011 and later his job as State Senate President. Some reports even peg Justice as a billionaire.

While there might be some inherent advantages for Republicans in West Virginia, especially with the immensely unpopular Hillary Clinton running in the state, Justice seems to be succeeding in having portrayed himself as tough talking businessman outsider running against an opponent from the political world. He has the support of numerous labor unions, including the United Mine Workers.

In many ways, the dynamics of this race seem to be weird, but polls are showing Justice ahead of Cole, by a decent, but not unassailable margin. Perhaps one of the things working to the Democrat's advantage is that he is "Never Hillary." Citing energy policy (and it is worth nothing that socialist Bernie Sanders, who is even more anti-coal, easily beat Clinton in the state's Presidential primary) Justice has stated he cannot vote for his party's Presidential nominee. A left-wing former Democrat female State Senator, who has sought the Governorship before, is on the ballot as the candidate of the Mountain Party and could play spoiler if the race is close.

As far as I know, Justice has not expressed actual support for Donald Trump, but the two populist billionaires seem to have a lot in common and will draw from much of the same base of support. In truth, Justice is likely more conservative (and in line with the American Way, to continue the pun.) While Cole may not be completely out of the running  in the economically and socially troubled state, Justice has the edge, as he is giving disaffected traditional Democrats a reason to stay with their ancestral party, similar to what Manchin and Tomblin have done in recent years.

I am inclined to support Republicans for every race outside of the Presidential contest this year, but while Cole is strongly trying to tie his lot to Trump, Mr. Justice is apparently not voting for either Trump or Clinton... just like me.

Governor race predictions:
10 D (1 Safe, 2 Likely, 4 Leans, 3 Tossup)
2 R (1, Safe,1 Likely)
Overall prediction: 21 D, 29 R

Democrat net gain of 2