Fox News digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt, who covered West Virginia politics for years before moving on to Washington, D.C., was surprised to hear Jim Justice was running for governor as a Democrat.
Stirewalt, like many others, assumed Justice was a Republican. And in fact, Justice was once a Republican. But party loyalty isn’t what it used to be. The Republicans have an 18-16 advantage in the West Virginia state Senate because Wyoming County Democrat Daniel Hall flipped to the GOP just days after the 2014 election.
Justice’s candidacy presents a political paradox. As the Gazette’s David Gutman wrote Monday, “Justice bought The Greenbrier out of bankruptcy in 2009, likely saving 1,100 unionized jobs. At the same time, he has repeatedly been sued by smaller businesses and contractors for failing to pay his debts.”
The West Virginia Republican Party was messaging against Justice even before he formally announced his candidacy Monday. “Liberal billionaire wants to buy the W.Va. Governor’s mansion,” reads the headline on the GOP’s website.
It’s hard to say whether Justice is a liberal, conservative or somewhere in between. He has donated money to Democrats and Republicans over the years and, because this is his first entry into politics, he’s not on record on issues such as abortion, the 2nd Amendment, right to work and more.
Also, conservatives normally celebrate wealth creation. Had Justice remained a Republican and gotten in the race, no doubt the GOP would be cheering the owner of the Greenbrier and some 80 coal, timber and farm businesses as a “proven job creator.” Instead it was the state Democratic Party’s news release that heralded Justice as a candidate with proven business acumen.
However, the Democratic Party also has an awkward fit.
NPR’s Howard Berkes said Monday, “NPR and Mine Safety and Health News reported in November that Justice had failed to pay close to $2 million in government mine safety penalties. The mines involved had an injury rate in the previous five years that was double the average rate for coal mines, according to the NPR/MSHN analysis.”
How does a Democratic Party that emphasizes environmental protection and workers’ rights overlook that?
It’s very early, but the Jim Justice candidacy has the feel of a Joe Manchin approach—long on populist appeal and short on political ideology. That has worked for Manchin, but other Democrats foundered in 2014 when they tried splitting political hairs, causing new Democratic Party leaders to pledge greater adherence to party principles.
Jim Justice does not fit easily into the conventional political paradigm. That could ultimately work in his favor, just as it has for Manchin. But campaigns are arduous treks filled with hazards. We’ll have to see.
In the meantime, watching the parties adjust their swing to the Jim Justice curve ball makes for a compelling game.