Thursday, September 17, 2020

Race of the Day- West Virginia Governor

West Virginia Governor

47 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Incumbent

2016 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Likely Republican

In 2016, only one state voted more heavily for Donald Trump than West Virginia. On that same day though, a Democrat, who happened to share much in common with Trump, won the Governorship in what some called at the time, "America's weirdest election." Now, though, as they both seek reelection, Donald Trump and Jim Justice are on the same side, officially. Both men are heavy favorites in the state, in more ways than one. Still, there is probably a good deal more excitement among those who will vote for Trump than those who will choose to reelect Justice.

Governor Justice is very tall and very wide and very rich. He has in fact been the wealthiest man in his state for quite some time. Like Trump, he inherited a business from his father and also owns a well-known resort. While Trump was registered for  many years as a Democrat before finally running for office as a Republican, Justice was a long-time registered Republican before running for Governor as a Democrat. After all, despite being overwhelmingly GOP now at the federal level, Democrats once had a lock on state government.

In 2016, Justice refused to support Hillary Clinton as his party's Presidential nominee, while his conservative Republican opponent did everything he could to embrace Trump. However, enough voters thought that Justice and Trump were kindred spirits to vote for both wealthy populist outsiders. Justice won 49-42, while a genuine liberal took six percent. 

Upon taking, Justice had to work with a Republican majority in the legislature and there were frequent conflicts between them as the Governor was quick to say insulting things about them. Things might have gotten awkward for Democrats and Republicans in the state alike as in the summer of 2017, with Donald Trump at his side at a rally, Justice switched parties and "rejoined" the Republicans. The Democrats who had supported him or were working for him felt betrayed. GOP members of the legislature suddenly had to change what they were saying about him publicly and Justice himself had to retract his support for Democrats seeking election and instead back Republicans. Trump and Justice though were thick as thieves at this point though. At a rally the next year, Trump would call the Governor, "the largest most beautiful man." Justice may actually be twice as rich as Trump and he looks like he could be twice his size too.

Betrayed Democrats hoped that Senator Joe Manchin would return home in 2020 and try to reclaim the job he had once held. Perhaps the most conservative Democrat on Capitol Hill had to scratch and claw to win reelection as Senator in 2018, but polls showed he would run ahead of Justice in a race for Governor. As seen here in 2016, party labels do not mean as much in statewide races in many states and Justice was a polarizing figure. However, Manchin announced he would stay in the Senate, which was disappointing to many Democrats at home but a relief to most around the country, as his Senate seat would have likely gone to Republicans in short order.

Five Democrats competed in this June's primary and the winner was the candidate backed by Manchin, and the state AFL-CIO over a more liberal candidate backed by Elizabeth Warren and Planned Parenthood. At 46, Ben Salango is 23 years younger than Justice and presents quite a visual contrast. The Kanawha County Commissioner took 39 percent in the primary while his closest competitor, Stephen Smith, a community activist who had run a health care advocacy group took 34 percent. The party nominated the candidate best equipped to win votes in the center, but it may not even matter than much in West Virginia.

Justice was not without his own primary opposition, even though his incumbency and closeness to Trump worked in his favor. Woody Thrasher resigned as state Secretary of Commerce upon his boss Justice's request. Even though he initially said he still considered him a friend, he ran against him in the Republican primary for Governor and basically promised less chaos in the Governorship. Former State Delegate Michael Folk also ran as a more traditional conservative, even though he once called for Hillary Clinton to be publicly executed. For that remark, he was suspended from his job as an airline pilot and he tried to walk back what he said. Justice took 63 percent of the primary vote, even as polls showed the incumbent favored, but at lower margins. Thrasher was held to 18 percent and Folk took about 13 percent.

With the general election set, there has not been much in the way of polling. Both major party nominees do not seem to be without detractors on their ideological side. The left-wing Mountain Party is part of this race and whatever support they receive will hurt Salango's underdog chances. At the same time, a sitting state Delegate, who left the Republicans to become an Independent is running as a write-in.

At the end of the day, the Democrat is likely too liberal for the state, and Justice has plenty of money to portray him as a liberal trial attorney. Many in the state may be anxious to vote against Justice (who some think brazenly cursed when describing Covid guidelines, but I think was likely an audio glitch) and others may not really like him, but it looks like another victory for the party switcher is at hand.

Governor races predicted:
3 D (1 Safe, 2 Likely)
8 R (2 Safe, 4 Likely, 2 Lean)

Total with predictions thus far:

23 Democrats (20 holdovers, 1 Safe, 2 Likely)
27 Republicans (19 holdovers, 2 Safe, 4 Likely, 2 Lean)

Republican net gain of 1


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