Jim Justice has been purposefully vague so far in his run for Governor. When pressed for specifics, the Greenbrier County businessman tends to fall back to his position that what’s been tried before hasn’t worked and his success in the private sector uniquely qualifies him for the position.
However, Justice is very pointed when the subject turns to whether he backs his party’s nominee for President. “I cannot be a supporter of Hillary Clinton,” Justice told me on Talkline Monday. “The reason I can’t be is her position on coal is diametrically, completely wrong in many, many different ways.”
So we have the Democratic candidate for Governor in a state where Democrats still have an overwhelming advantage in voter registration openly stating he is opposed to his party’s nominee for President. That’s illustrative of how much the political landscape has changed in West Virginia since the 2000 election when George W. Bush beat Al Gore here.
Justice has contributed to Democrats and Republicans over the years, and was a registered Republican until early last year when he switched his party affiliation. He has tried to set himself up during the campaign as the anti-politician.
“Just because we have a specific person that’s running for the highest office in the land doesn’t mean that I’m going to just rubber-stamp it,” Justice said. “I don’t rubber-stamp anybody.” He added, however, that he would work to elect Democrats at the state level in hopes the party can regain the majorities in the Senate and House of Delegates.
The Justice campaign knows that Clinton is unpopular in West Virginia. She may not be as toxic as President Obama, but her statement about putting coal miners and coal companies out of business (although she later apologized and said she misspoke) follows her in West Virginia like the aroma of fresh cooked ramps.
Interestingly, Senator Joe Manchin, who is a strong supporter of Justice, backs Clinton and even traveled with her through the southern West Virginia coal fields. But then again, Manchin is not on the ballot this time.
Justice stayed away from the Democratic National Convention and now is taking the ten-foot-pole approach to Clinton and presidential politics altogether.
“And to be perfectly honest, I, at least a couple weeks ago, Donald Trump was so far out there and saying some things that were so bizarre and everything, I have tried to do just this. I’ve tried with all that is in me to say, my focus, my reason to run for Governor was not the Presidential race. My reason I ran for Governor was for West Virginia and the people in West Virginia,” Justice said.
None of this will deter the Bill Cole campaign from trying to link Justice to Clinton and Obama. That’s chapter one of the Republican campaign strategy playbook in red states. And certainly some of the strong anti-Obama/Clinton sentiment will hurt all Democrats, including Justice.
A number of Democrats running for statewide office of late have tried to parse their position with something like, “I am concentrating on my race in West Virginia,” while not specifically opposing Obama or Clinton. It hasn’t worked. Just ask Nick Rahall, Natalie Tennant and Nick Casey.
Moderate West Virginia Democrats are still trying to figure out how to reconcile with a national Democratic Party that has shifted farther to the left, particularly on environmental issues. Justice, who has positioned himself as a political outsider, protects that turf by keeping his distance from presidential politics.