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Early take on Justice vs. Salango

All the votes have now been counted from the West Virginia Primary Election over two weeks ago, and politics in our state will calm down for a few months. Be that as it may, here is a way-too-early take on the Governor’s race.

There are two ways to look at Governor Jim Justice’s victory in a field of seven candidates in the Republican Primary.

The first is that he scored a massive win with 63 percent of the vote, while the next closest vote getter—Woody Thrasher—got just 18 percent.  That is impressive considering Justice switched parties after his election in 2016 and was running in the Republican Primary for the first time.

However, that also means 37 percent of voters in the Republican Primary chose someone other than the incumbent Governor from their own party.  That is 79,000 voters who can now back Justice or a third party candidate, jump over to vote for Democratic nominee Ben Salango or just not vote in November.

Salango prevailed among the five Democratic candidates, but not with a majority.  The Kanawha County Commissioner received 39 percent of the vote, compared with 34 percent for Stephen Smith and 13 percent for Ron Stollings.

Salango received nearly 75,000 votes, but that means over 118,000 Democrats and independents voted for someone other than Salango, including nearly 66,000 who backed Smith.  Salango must have those Smith backers in November, but how many will get on board? Smith’s campaign—like Bernie Sanders—was based more on a movement than party loyalty.

The Justice-Salango race should look very different than the 2016 contest.  Justice, who was a Democrat back then, squared off against Republican Senator Bill Cole.  Their parties may have been different, but they were both conservative to moderate businessmen.  (Justice won 49 percent to 42 percent)

Salango is a progressive Democrat who, for example, opposes right-to-work, supports bringing back prevailing wage and backs 12-week paid family leave for all public employees. It will be easier for voters to see policy distinctions between the two.

This will also be a race between a known quantity and a fresh face.  Again, those qualities have pros and cons.  Justice’s four years in office means he has experience, but also a record that he is accountable for.  Salango is the new guy on the statewide scene and that has appeal, but he can also be viewed as a risk.

Then there is the Trump card—literally.  President Trump is extremely popular in West Virginia.  His position at the top of the ticket, as well as his fondness for Justice, provide a significant advantage for the sitting Governor.

Meanwhile, Salango still has a lot of work to do to introduce himself to the state.  He is well known in Kanawha County, where he beat Smith by more than two to one, but a candidate other than Salango won in 29 of the state’s 55 counties.

We also do not know how the virus is going to impact the campaign.  If COVID-19 is still around and spreading this fall, Justice and Salango will be limited in their personal appearances.  That means paid media, earned media and debates—Justice has informally agreed to two—will have a bigger impact.


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