West Virginia Governor to Switch from Democrat to Republican
Speaking to reporters in the White House Thursday, Mr. Trump promised “a very big announcement” at a gathering in Huntington, W.V., that is expected to draw thousands of supporters from across Appalachia, a region that gave Mr. Trump some of the largest margins of his election.
Mr. Justice, a billionaire coal and real estate magnate, ran as a conservative Democrat and declined to endorse Hillary Clinton in 2016. But even as West Virginia has become a reliable Republican state in presidential elections and further down the ballot, a handful of Democrats have still been able to win office.
Mr. Justice, though, is said to have friendly relationships with some members of Mr. Trump’s family. And before entering politics he gave money to officeholders in both parties while variously registering as a Republican, Democrat and independent.
Mr. Justice’s decision to change parties will further isolate Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and himself a former governor. Mr. Manchin has resisted the entreaties of Republicans to change parties and add to the two-seat Senate majority. Some Trump administration officials, eyeing Mr. Manchin’s seat, also had hoped to put him in the cabinet, but he has declined all overtures. Now he must stand for re-election in 2018 without the help of a friendly governor.
“Joe Manchin has been and always will be a proud West Virginia Democrat,” said Jonathan Kott, Mr. Manchin’s communications director. Mr. Kott also said Mr. Manchin was still not interested in joining the Trump cabinet.
In his first months as governor, Mr. Justice, a colorful and hulking figure who stands over six feet, seven inches, drew headlines beyond West Virginia’s border for bringing a plate of cow excrement into the state capitol to express his anger at a Republican-passed budget proposal.
“What we have is nothing more than bunch of political bull you-know-what,” Mr. Justice said, pulling the lid off a silver platter to reveal the scented prop atop a printed copy of the budget.
But the governor, who found his fortune with coal and now owns The Greenbrier resort, continues to be dogged by the same financial issues that Republicans sought to use against him in last year’s campaign. The state tax department has filed four liens this year against of one of Mr. Justice’s companies, Tams Management Inc., citing nearly $1 million in unpaid taxes, interest and penalties related to his coal mines.
Mr. Justice scaled back his television advertising campaign late in last year’s gubernatorial campaign, telling Democratic officials that, while wealthy on paper, he had limited liquidity, according to a Democrat involved in the conversations.
In West Virginia, Representative Evan Jenkins, one of the Republicans seeking Mr. Manchin’s Senate seat, said he would welcome the governor to his party.
“I simply couldn’t be a part of a liberal agenda that was so contrary to who we are and what we believe in West Virginia,” said Mr. Jenkins, who switched parties several years ago.
Shaking hands with constituents at a meet-and-greet at a hotel next to the stadium where Mr. Trump is scheduled to speak, Mr. Jenkins said he would understand if Mr. Justice felt the same way.
“If Jim Justice is the next to change his party registration to Republican, I welcome him to the Republican party,” he said.
Chris Goertler, a retired consultant from Williamstown, W.V., who was at the stadium to see Mr. Trump, said that he used to be a Republican but is now “nonaffiliated.” Told of Mr. Justice’s expected announcement, Mr. Goertler shrugged and said: “I could never be a Democrat myself.”
Russell Lucas, an electrician from Kenova, W.V., who was also in line waiting to see Mr. Trump, said he would welcome Mr. Justice to the Republican Party, but added that he supported him even though he was a Democrat.
“Doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “He’s done a lot for this state already. He’s a mine owner, and I know guys that work in the mines, and all of them like him. They said he’s for the people.”