Editor’s note: West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced Aug. 3, 2017, that he’s switching his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, and introduced President Donald Trump at a rally in Huntington, West Virginia. In this profile from December, Melissa Quinn captures some reasons why.
As results rolled in on election night, most political consultants and commentators were caught off guard by the victory of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
But in West Virginia, a state where Trump trounced Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, another wealthy businessman also claimed victory after capturing the attention of voters for his outsider perspective.
In the race for governor, Jim Justice, a Democrat who is West Virginia’s only billionaire, defeated Republican opponent Bill Cole by 7 percentage points.
Though they may be on opposite sides of the political spectrum—at least in party affiliation this year—the similarities between Trump and Justice are evident.
Justice, however, wasn’t the only candidate to win a governor’s race in a state where voters split the ticket.
In Montana and North Carolina, voters also elected Democrat governors, but supported Trump at the top of the ticket. By contrast, Vermont and New Hampshire voters elected Republican governors but supported Clinton.
Still, in none of those states was the support for Trump as overwhelming as it was in West Virginia.
There, the president-elect bested Clinton by 42 percentage points—a margin second only to Wyoming.
On its face, it’s difficult to see how Democrat Justice could have won the state against Republican Cole, especially given West Virginia’s support for Trump.
But to those who have watched the state move from a Democratic stronghold to one where Republicans hold majorities in the House of Delegates and the state Senate, Justice’s rise to the governor’s mansion didn’t come as much of a shock.
“Jim Justice was just an iconic candidate,” Rex Repass, CEO of Repass Research and Strategic Consulting, and director of the MetroNews West Virginia Poll, told The Daily Signal. “He’s the savior of the Greenbrier hotel. He’s well known in the state, and he’s a business person.”
“Plus, he relates to West Virginians very well,” Repass said. “He just comes across as one of them.”
And Trump’s popularity in the state actually may have helped Justice, 65.
“Jim Justice is the most Trump-like person running for office whose name isn’t Donald Trump,” Geoff Skelley, associate editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told The Daily Signal.
‘Hero’ in West Virginia
It’s difficult to ignore the parallels between the governor-elect and the president-elect.
“Trump and Justice, the two of them together winning in the same year, makes a lot of sense, especially the way things are going in West Virginia,” Skelley said. “It’s a state that’s suffered immensely in recent times, so it doesn’t shock me that voters really took to a renewal message regardless of the party label of the two candidates.”
Both Trump and Justice are wealthy businessmen with no political experience who used their positions as outsiders to woo voters.
Justice’s net worth tops $1.6 billion, according to Forbes, and he is the only billionaire in West Virginia.
His wealth made it possible for him to self-fund his campaign, as Trump did. According to campaign finance reports, Justice loaned his campaign more than $2.6 million.
Over the course of their lives, both men have pledged allegiance to both political parties, with Justice most recently changing his affiliation from Republican to Democrat in February 2015.
And they both campaigned on the promise of economic prosperity.
Now that they’ve won their respective offices, each man plans to collect a salary of just $1.
But though both Justice and Trump have been successful in business, they’re not without their troubles.
In October, one month before Election Day, NPR reported that Justice’s mining companies owed $15 million in taxes and fines.
Still, Justice’s success as a candidate, like Trump’s, can be tied to his personality.
“Personality matters immensely with these kinds of things,” Skelley said. “The idea of ‘Make America Great Again’ for Trump wasn’t dissimilar for Justice. He’s that ‘West Virginia First’ kind of guy.”
In West Virginia, Justice is considered a hero, and a hero for one reason in particular: Justice saved the Greenbrier resort.
The Greenbrier, located in White Sulphur Springs and dubbed “America’s Resort,” has been in operation since 1778. But by 2009, it was on the verge of bankruptcy.
That year, Justice made national news when he beat Marriott Corp., which thought its effort would be a slam dunk, to buying the resort.
In the 18 months following the purchase, the billionaire was able to return the Greenbrier to profitability, according to The Washington Post.
And six days after buying the Greenbrier, Justice hired back the more than 600 employees who were laid off when the resort was hemorrhaging money.
Justice then convinced the PGA to replace the Buick Open, held in Flint, Michigan, with a golf tournament at the Greenbrier—creating the Greenbrier Classic—and persuaded the New Orleans Saints football team to hold its training camp on the resort’s campus.
In June, after deadly floods hit West Virginia, the Greenbrier closed to the public. But Justice opened the resort free of charge to flood victims in need of a place to stay.
Defeating the guy who restored the Greenbrier to its former glory would be a tall task for any challenger, said Repass, who has conducted the MetroNews West Virginia Poll since 1980.
“He’s done so much, and he’s perceived as someone who can open doors and build positive economic momentum in the state,” Repass said, adding:
Bill Cole ran a strong campaign, but I think he was really behind the eight ball from the beginning. You buy the Greenbrier, and you’re a hero in West Virginia for a long time.
A ‘Coal Man’
Republicans in West Virginia for years have used the “war on coal” as an easy line of attack against Democrats competing at the state and national levels.
But it was nearly impossible for that line to stick to Justice.
Justice made his money in the coal industry, inheriting Bluestone Industries and Bluestone Coal Corp. from his father after his death in 1993.
In 2009, Justice sold Bluestone Coal Corp. to OAO Mechel, a Russian company, for $568 million.
“It’s ridiculous to think a coal man is wanting to support the war on coal,” William Gorby, a history professor at West Virginia University, told The Daily Signal.
During the campaign, Justice distanced himself from Clinton and said he couldn’t support the Democratic presidential nominee because of her energy policies.
“The reason I can’t be [a supporter] is her position on coal is diametrically, completely wrong in many, many different ways,” Justice said in an interview with the MetroNews radio network.
But the billionaire businessman’s record as a coal operator isn’t clean, detractors note.
“He’s screwed every coal operator in West Virginia at one time or another,” Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic political strategist, told Politico in September.
In 2014, NPR reported that Justice had nearly $2 million in unpaid fines to the federal government.
Justice’s mining companies still owe a total of $15 million in fines and taxes in six states, according to a second NPR investigation published in October.
But Justice’s troubles in running his coal mines didn’t motivate voters to support Cole.
After the second of two gubernatorial debates, Repass conducted a focus group with 12 voters and found that though Justice’s tax issues “raised a red flag,” they largely still trusted him.
“It was about overall trust and feeling like he would work hard for the state,” Repass said, adding:
People understood that successful business people who have multiple companies from time to time have challenges with basically dealing with tax issues and having to appeal tax issues and having to work with vendors.
Typical Democratic Candidate
Gorby, who studies West Virginia and Appalachian history, said Justice is no different than other Democrats who have run for governor in the Mountain State and won.
Since the 1970s, West Virginia’s Democratic Party has made a habit out of nominating gubernatorial candidates who are independently wealthy or political outsiders, Gorby said. Think Jay Rockefeller, governor from 1977 to 1985, and Gaston Caperton, governor from 1989 to 1997.
“[Caperton] ran on the idea that you need an independently minded figure to run and make some structural reforms, and was able to get elected,” Gorby said. “Justice used that same language and was using that same mentality.”
But this year’s governor’s race didn’t exactly pit an outsider against a political insider.
Like Justice, Republican candidate Cole is a businessman; he owns several car dealerships in West Virginia and Kentucky.
Cole served just seven months in the state House of Delegates in 2010, when he filled a vacant seat. In 2012, Cole was elected to the state Senate and became president of the chamber last year.
During Cole’s tenure, the Senate passed a litany of bills that should’ve bolstered his conservative bonafides, including a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, a right-to-work bill, and a measure allowing residents to carry concealed handguns without a permit.
But Rob Cornelius, who used to work with the state party and currently chairs the Wood County Republican Party, said Cole’s political consultants ended up burying his record and distancing him from Trump.
“[Voters] didn’t know Cole, they didn’t perceive him to be conservative, and they enjoyed Jim Justice’s ‘Mayberry’ act,” Cornelius told The Daily Signal.
Gorby, though, said Justice was able to use Cole’s record against him.
During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers were forced to reconvene in Charleston for a 17-day special session to work out budget issues, which provided Justice with fodder on the campaign trail.
“Bill Cole wasted over a half a million dollars of your money on a special session to pass a budget that solved nothing,” the Democrat candidate said in an ad in September. “What West Virginia needs is jobs—good jobs that increase state revenue and decrease unemployment. That’s how you balance the budget.”
In a radio interview, Cole attempted to shift the blame for the special session to Justice and accused the Democrat’s campaign of pushing House delegates to slow down budget negotiations because “it’ll make the Republicans look bad.”
But Justice’s ability to use the special session against Cole had the desired effect, Gorby said.
“There were a lot of issues that came up during the campaign and during the debates where Justice was able to effectively criticize some of the policies that had been pushed by Cole,” he said. “Jim Justice made a persuasive argument by blaming a lot of that on the Senate president that we had to have a special session, that we spent several hundred thousand dollars, and we didn’t really solve a lot of the long-term budget issues.”
Some say one more legislative change may have hurt Cole.
During the 2015 session—Cole’s first as Senate president—the Republican-controlled state Legislature decided to eliminate “straight-ticket” voting, which allows voters to select a party’s entire slate of candidates.
According to the secretary of state’s office, 27 percent of West Virginia voters took advantage of the straight-ticket option during the 2014 general election. Of those who voted straight ticket, 53 percent voted Republican.
“That was a curious move to make for Republicans controlling both houses of the state Legislature to decide to do that,” Skelley said of the decision to eliminate straight-ticket voting.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, perhaps “had some foresight saying this is a good thing to do,” Skelley said.
“I wonder if that hurt Cole to some degree.”
Justice may be faced with an early test as he assumes office Jan. 16.
According to reports, Trump has considered U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for one or more positions in his administration.
If the president-elect taps Manchin, himself a former West Virginia governor, Justice would be responsible for filling the vacancy.