Photo: West Virginia Governor Jim Justice at the State of the State address in 2017. Courtesy of Governor Jim Justice’s Flickr page.
Gov. Justice’s political upset
In a move that shocked Republicans and Democrats alike, West Virginia’s governor, Jim Justice switched parties. Justice made the switch publicly at a Trump rally in the state, making his already unusual move even more unusual. It is rare for higher-level politicians to switch sides– it is even more rare for them to do so the way Governor Justice did–in a public rally without notifying either party’s leaders.
It was clear Gov. Justice did not coordinate the move with the West Virginia GOP because, at the time of the announcement, the state party’s page was still full of articles and press releases attacking the governor.
According to NPR, the state’s Republican Party Chairman was not even in town for the switch. In an interview with CNN, West Virginia radio show host and columnist Hoppy Kercheval said, “Even his top staff and close advisers did not know. One told me he found out about it on Twitter. Another told me yesterday he wouldn’t believe it until he heard it from the Governor’s mouth.”
Why Did Gov. Justice Switch Parties?
Donald Trump’s lack of national popularity, the Republican Party’s struggles at the federal level and how recently Gov. Justice ran as a Democrat, make the move all the more surprising.
The most obvious answer is that President Trump is still wildly popular in West Virginia. According to statistics website, FiveThirtyEight, only 37 percent of the country approves of President Trump. The site’s administrators have given several different polls regarding Trump’s performance. They take an average of the results.
Conversely, a recent Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of West Virginians approve of Trump – higher than any other state in the union. Seventy-seven percent of the state voted for him last November. The opinion of the nation probably means less to Gov. Justice than the opinion of his state and his voters. In the short-term, the move will likely help Justice survive politically.
A more subtle answer may be the Gov. Justice and President Trump resemble, and just plain like each other. Gov. Justice has been an eccentric Democrat from the start. He refused to endorse Hillary Clinton, he is West Virginia’s only billionaire, and he painted himself as a political outsider. Much like Trump, Justice is a very wealthy businessman who does not like the political machinery of the country. In addition, Justice, like Trump, has made big money from hotels and industry. Similar to Trump, Justice even has issues of corruption, work safety, and broken promises attached to his name.
Though not known nationally, Justice is certainly a popular figure in West Virginia. He is responsible for re-opening a famous hotel, running coal mines, and serving as a coach of a local girls’ basketball team. Much as Trump has a signature and personal brand, so does Gov. Justice. In fact, Gov. Justice and President Trump are great friends. In an interview, Justice shares a story where President Trump’s son helps change a tire on the governor’s car.
It is easy to dismiss Justice’s move as cynical, but it clearly has deep personal motivations. The two politicians have revealed that they’re friends and so the switch comes naturally. Even the way it was done – in a rally, a surprise to most in both parties – bore the mark of a style both of the politicians share.
Party switch: What does it mean for Gov. Justice, GOP?
Despite the pomp and drama, Gov. Justice’s switch might not mean much. Both houses of the state government already belonged to the Republican Party and the state’s laws allow a veto to be overturned with a simple majority. Justice would have had little chance of blocking anything he disliked. In fact, the chair of West Virginia’s Republican Party gave him a lukewarm reception, saying state Republicans “will treat him as a member of our party, but we expect him to act as a member of our party,” implying a concern that Justice will not fit well with Republicans, either.
More than anything, Gov. Justice’s switch was a win for Republican prestige at a time when the GOP needed it. Republicans have failed to get Obamacare repealed, even with control of all houses of government. They have also struggled to get a refugee ban they wanted. Republicans have suffered from infighting in the White House.
Gov. Justice’s party switch is a victory. This victory, though small, is reassuring for Republicans. It gives Republicans an historically high control of state governments – the most Republican governors since 1922. This could be a sign that Republicans are still harnessing blue collar populism better than Democrats, or it could be nothing more than a strange event during strange times.