President Donald Trump on Thursday stormed into West Virginia and left with a political coup — a party switch involving one of the country’s dwindling number of Democratic governors.
Gov. Jim Justice, who won election as a Democrat last year despite Trump’s landslide win in the presidential race there, drew enthusiastic cheers Thursday in Huntington when he announced he no longer could remain in the party.
“Like it or not like it, but the Democrats walked away from me,” he said, echoing former President Ronald Reagan’s famous line. “Today I will tell you with lots of prayers and lots of thinking, today I tell you as West Virginians, I can’t help you anymore being a Democrat governor. So tomorrow, I will be changing my registration to Republican.”
Trump welcomed the nation’s newest Republican official.
“Having Big Jim as a Republican is such an honor,” he said.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel also welcomed Justice in a statement: “Across America, voters have put their faith in the Republican Party because we are the Party fighting to give every individual the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.”
Justice’s switch surprised the state’s political establishment. Earlier in the day the West Virginia Republican Party tweeted a Trumpian attack on Justice, “Low-Energy @WVGovernor Refuses To Stop Millions Of $$ In Contracts To Companies Who Cheated WV Taxpayers. Sad!”
Conrad Lucas, the chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party, acknowledged that it would take time for rank-and-file Republicans to accept Justice. But he said he is optimistic that the governor will embrace his new party.
“We’ve had our issues with Gov. Justice in the past,” he told LifeZette. “Those issues were while he was a Democrat.”
The switch is the latest blow to Mountain State Democrats, who have hemorrhaged elected officials over the past decade. The GOP controls all three member of the House of Representatives, one of two senators, most of the statewide offices and majorities in both houses of the legislature.
In 2007, the GOP had only one House member and one statewide office holder.
“It’s great to hear another Democrat in West Virginia has joined the conservative ranks,” Lucas said.
[lz_table title=”West Virginia’s Transformation” source=””]Republicans in 2007 vs. 2017
*After Jim Justice’s party switch
Justice was not a great fit for the Democratic Party. He formerly had been a Republican and independent and contributed money to politicians of both parties. Although he ran as a Democrat, he said publicly he would not vote for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Scott Crichlow, chairman of the political science department at West Virginia University, said Justice also was at odds with lawmakers of his own party on budget issues in the recently concluded legislative session. He said the governor particularly got along with state Senate Republicans.
“It’s not very shocking that he wasn’t a very committed Democrat,” Crichlow said.
Justice’s move undoubtedly will put pressure on the state’s last prominent Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin. Crichlow noted that Manchin has said many times that he would remain a Democrat, but he appears to be an outlier amid a consistent trend.
“It can be seen as a continuation of that trend … A lot’s turned over in the last decade,” he said.
Aside from the Justice coup, Trump’s speech on Thursday could have been lifted directly from his 2016 campaign. He hit the same themes, railing against the Establishment of both parties, trade deals, and America’s recent foreign policy.
Trump promised a better economy, rebuilt roads and bridges, and stomped-out terrorism.
The president also ridiculed the “totally made-up Russia story” and called on federal prosecutors to investigate Clinton’s 33,000 missing State Department emails, prompting campaign-era chants of “Lock her up” and a protester getting escorted out of the crowd. He said he was dedicating his presidency to forgotten Americans.
“We will make sure they’re never ignored again. We know there are powerful forces in Washington who want to stop us,” he said. “But we won’t let them. We are fighting for every American who’s been overlooked, pushed aside, or told to put their dreams on hold.”
Trump did mention some current issues, including the proposed legal immigration reduction he endorsed this week, a crackdown on “sanctuary” cities, and reformed health care. He thanked Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) for her vote in favor of a Senate Obamacare repeal bill.
“Repeal and replace. Hard to believe,” he said, recalling the bill’s defeat by a single vote.
Trump said he would not let Congress drop the issue.
“Congress must get to work and deliver Americans the great health care they deserve, the great repeal and replace that they’ve been talking about for seven years,” he said. “Incredible … They can’t give up.”
(photo credit, homepage and article images: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)