The rumors had been circulating for some time; Governor Jim Justice was thinking about switching from the Democratic to the Republican Party. He talked about it with close advisers, wondering if the move would empower him to accomplish more with the Republican majorities in the House of Delegates and the Senate.
But the talk never seemed to go any farther. After all, Justice had just won election as a Democrat a few months earlier. How wise would it be to run as a member of one party, then switch not long after the election?
Additionally, Justice didn’t seem to pay much attention to party labels. He didn’t fly the Democratic flag during the campaign and during the legislative session he was as apt to bond with Republicans as Democrats. He said party affiliation was not important to him; he just wanted to work with anyone who could make West Virginia better.
If party identification is not important, then why change?
So something happened. Something caused the Governor to make a move that would be as controversial as it is stunning. The most logical reason is that the President of the United States played a key role.
The news would not have been timed for last night unless there was a Trump factor, and earlier in the day Trump teased reporters in Washington, telling them a big announcement was coming.
Justice and the Trump family have always been friendly. Last May, Justice hosted Donald Trump Jr. during a visit to West Virginia. While turkey hunting and trout fishing, the two talked about pressing issues facing the state and the country.
Justice and the President have become good friends, and he calls Trump a good man. “I think he’s battling the battle and doing all that he can do, or he’s trying as hard as he can.”
Trump has reciprocated, frequently referencing West Virginia and coal mining jobs. Last night’s appearance in Huntington was his second to the state in two weeks. These two have a real bromance going.
Justice is going to have a lot of home front issues on this move. Republican leaders who have been quarreling with him and blasting him for proposing a huge tax increase now have to adjust to the Governor as one of them. Democrats must be furious. Trump protesters in Huntington, who presumably are Democrats or independents, broke into a chant of “Jim Justice is a traitor.”
Also, Justice’s top staff is made up of Democrats, including Chief of Staff Nick Casey, who is the former chairman of the state Democratic Party. To add insult to injury, they were not aware Justice was going to make the switch. One staffer told me he read it on Twitter. One has to wonder how long these top aides will stick around.
It’s hard to predict how this will play out. Justice has indicated he expects to serve just one term, so any possible Election Day fallout is irrelevant. Perhaps the Governor figures whatever downside developments from his flip will be offset by his ability to call the Oval Office when he wants something done for West Virginia.