CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Election 2020 is coming to West Virginia already.
Members of the state Republican Party received an email Saturday, inviting them to an event in White Sulphur Springs.
“Governor Jim Justice will be making a special campaign announcement next week and you are invited!”
He’s running. No, really pic.twitter.com/iFuZlBUqPR
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) January 5, 2019
The invitation, with Republican Party letterhead and signed by state party chairwoman Melody Potter, was widely interpreted as a sign that Justice will be announcing his bid for re-election.
If so, it marks quite a turn of events for Justice, the billionaire businessman who was first elected as a Democrat, to receive an official stamp from the Republican Party prior to the primary.
If Justice is running again, his position is powerful in several ways.
He can leverage the incumbency of statewide office, his fundraising ability should be strong, he may draw on his personal wealth, and he has a demonstrated relationship with President Trump, who remains popular in West Virginia.
But he has weaknesses, too.
His family businesses are entangled in the federal court system over debts, his attentiveness to the job has been questioned, and concerns have arisen over his health.
Then there’s the party question.
Justice ran in 2016 as a Democrat, defeating former Senate President Jeff Kessler and former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin in the primary.
He won the General Election against Republican Bill Cole, who also had been Senate President.
But by the summer of 2017, Justice announced onstage with Trump that he would be switching to be a Republican.
“With lots of prayers and lots of thoughts, today I tell you as West Virginians I can’t help you any more being a Democratic governor,” Justice announced to cheers. “So tomorrow, I will be changing my registration to Republican.”
That saga adds to the intrigue of the GOP letterhead for this week’s campaign announcement. What if another longtime Republican wants to offer a primary challenge?
Justice’s popularity is a real balancing act.
The most recent polling by Morning Consult showed an even split of 43 percent of West Virginia residents expressing approval of Justice and 43 percent expressing disapproval.
Fourteen percent did not know.
A MetroNews Dominion Post West Virginia Poll from late summer showed 43 percent approving of Justice’s job performance with 37 percent not approving and 20 percent unsure.
The same poll showed 48 percent view Justice as likable with 28 percent saying he is not likable. Twenty-four percent were neutral.
Justice has accomplished several of his policy goals.
A road bond meant to generate $1.6 billion for highways work passed in 2017, although with voter turnout of a little less than 11 percent.
The administration also raised tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike while also offering a significant deal on EZPass. Bumps erupted in the past few weeks as interest overwhelmed capacity.
The state budget strain of the past few years has given way to more frequent reports of monthly surpluses. Justice has broken out leis to celebrate when the revenue news is particularly good.
There has not been reported progress on a Dollywood for West Virginia or a niche crop, two Justice campaign promises.
He also promised, “I’ll take West Virginia on a jobs rocket ride like no one could ever believe.”
West Virginia’s unemployment rate is 5.3 percent, exactly the same as the month Justice first took office but better than its recent high of 8.8 percent in 2010.
It’s also about 1.5 percent above the national unemployment rate.
There have been some rough patches for Justice, too.
Companies owned by his family have been in court over debts.
And just last week, a federal judge scolded a Justice company for “continuing to flout the Court’s directives” on paying a $1.23 million contempt order.
Justice has had other challenges, too.
He has continued to live in Lewisburg, more than two hours from the state Capitol, despite the state Constitution’s requirement to live at the seat of government.
The living arrangement has been challenged in court by Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, a Democrat. And teachers rallying at the Capitol during a 9-day walkout questioned the governor’s whereabouts.
His health also has arisen as an issue.
In summer 2017, Justice acknowledged that he’d been ill enough to seek treatment at Johns Hopkins. The administration didn’t confirm until pressed, and it was unclear who was in charge in his absence.
Last Jan. 25, the administration sent out a statement asking people to stop rumors about the governor’s health.
“I’ve had no recent doctors’ appointments but the last time I did they told me I’m in wonderful health, except for being a little chunky, and that I have incredible stamina,” Justice stated.
Now the governor may be ready for another statewide campaign and four more years.
“I would just end by saying this: Judge me by my deeds. Judge me by what I’ve done,” Justice said while wrapping up a 2017 debate against Bill Cole, his Republican opponent.
Justice, if he indeed chooses to run again, has at least one opponent lined up already.
Stephen Smith, former director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, has announced he’s running as a Democrat.
Will anyone else — Republican or Democrat — step up to challenge West Virginia’s complicated incumbent governor?
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) January 7, 2019