CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice, who switched parties to become a Republican in early August, told a crowd of Republican lawmakers this week that he supports Democratic Senator Joe Manchin’s re-election to the U.S. Senate.
Manchin, a former governor who has served in the U.S. Senate since 2010, is in what most political observers consider to be a hotly-contested election in 2018. Congressman Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey are running in the Republican primary.
Governor Justice was speaking to Republicans on Monday evening at the state Culture Center. He addressed his desire to pass a multi-million dollar road bond during a statewide vote Oct. 7, an issue that has divided Republicans. The governor then opened up for a wide array of questions.
The delegate who asked about the Manchin race was Kayla Kessinger, a Republican from Fayette County.
“You know, I think most of us in here agree that any time we can have a new Republican join our party, we’re glad to have him join us. I’m glad to hear that you do stand with us on issues like life and the Second Amendment, and I think that there’s one issue that unites every Republican in this room, and it’s beating liberal Democrat Joe Manchin in the next election,” Kessinger said to Justice.
“We want to make sure you’re going to help us lead our party in electing a true conservative Republican to the U.S. Senate.”
Assessing the governor’s response during an interview this week at the Capitol, Kessinger said: “It was not the answer that I think Republicans were looking for. He kind of skirted around the question.”
Multiple Republicans said the governor expressed his support for Manchin.
Justice ran and won as a Democrat. One of Justice’s top campaign managers was Larry Puccio, a former Manchin campaign manager and chief of staff. Justice’s first chief of staff was Nick Casey, who was campaign treasurer for Manchin. Justice fired Casey a couple of weeks after switching parties.
“Joe Manchin has been a friend of mine,” Justice told the Republican crowd. “Now he may be a terrible person to y’all but Joe has been a friend of mine and I’m going to tell you this as straight up as I can be: Joe Manchin is becoming a very key, integral part with Donald Trump. And I’m going to take my read off of Donald Trump.”
Justice went on to say, “Joe Manchin is — and I know this — Joe Manchin is Donald Trump’s liaison with the Democrats. And you want, and I want, what Donald Trump is trying to get done.”
Justice did offer praise for Jenkins and Morrisey: “Now I really like Evan, and I like Morrisey as well. Really like him. I really do. I can’t be any more honest than just that.”
Buzzfeed also published a story about Justice’s remarks, quoting state Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas as saying he thinks the governor will come around: “He said positive things about the Republicans who were running,” Lucas told Buzzfeed.
Kessinger, in the separate interview at the Capitol, said it was important to hear the governor’s perspective on the race.
“I think it’s a combination of things. What was it — a month ago? — that he decided to change parties? He decided to come to our side of the political spectrum, and our party has long been vocal about Joe Manchin and his liberal policies and our desire to replace him with a conservative that we can trust.
“I was hoping that Gov. Jim Justice — if he is being honest about his desire to become a Republican and he embraces our conservative platform — that he would do everything it takes to make sure we have a conservative Republican in the United States Senate.”
More Republican lawmakers asked Justice questions aimed at gauging his place on the Republican spectrum.
Right after Justice announced his switch to be a Republican, reporters asked him what part of Republican philosophy attracted him to the party.
Justice was asked for his definition of Republican values during a news conference the day he signed the documents to make his party switch.
“I would hope that they are really good ones. And I would hope that the Democrats’ are really good ones,” Justice said that day, August 4.
“The net-net of the whole thing is just this: Jim isn’t changing. Jim is still going to be Jim. Jim is still going to be the person who stands up for the common, everyday family. That’s all there is to it.
He continued, speaking in the third person: “Jim is going to be rock solid behind the teachers and trying to help education. Jim is going to be exactly the same Jim that always was there. I’m just telling you with the process of what we have in this great thing, Jim can’t help West Virginia the way it is today. And Jim is not going to just come down here and take pictures and kiss babies and hang out.”
On Monday evening, Delegate Marshall Wilson, a Republican from Berkeley County, was among those who asked Justice about his agreement with specific aspects of the Republican platform.
Wilson, a first-year delegate, asked about reduction of the gasoline tax, about requiring a vote of the people before incurring new state debt or new state taxes and about right to life from conception.
“I am with you with regard to right to life, period,” Justice responded.
Wilson followed up: “And incurring new debt, sir? Raising new taxes? Reduction of the gasoline tax?”
Justice told the lawmakers that he’s gotten a bad rap and that he doesn’t want to raise taxes. But he pointed to a $500 million budget shortfall last year — a gap that many Republicans attribute to the desire to spend too much.
The governor then asked the lawmakers who’d gathered at the Culture Center to use their brains.
“All I am saying to you is just this: I am absolutely an advocate of no taxes. I am a hundred thousand percent behind that. But the only thing I’m asking you is just this: Just be fair. Be fair to know, can you truly, can you truly cut and make this level of cut and us survive?”