West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is expected to announce a party switch in a surprise appearance with President Donald Trump in Huntington, W.Va., on Thursday, according to two sources.
Justice’s flip from Democrat to Republican, as first reported by the New York Times, is further confirmation of his state’s sharp rightward turn, and reflects Trump’s widespread popularity in a state the president won by a landslide in 2016.
Trump, who has promised to restore lost coal industry jobs, has lavished attention on West Virginia since taking office.
Justice, who seldom worked with other Democrats, recently spent a well-publicized day hunting with Donald Trump Jr. — a familiar political optic in a largely rural state with a strong hunting tradition. But his move still blindsided his old party, which is now left with control of just only 15 governors mansions. Multiple national Democrats who have worked for Justice in the past said he gave them no advance notice on the party switch.
The governor’s move stands to make the coming months more complicated for Sen. Joe Manchin, who now stands as the state’s most prominent Democrat ahead of a tough re-election challenge in 2018. Manchin — a moderate Democrat who is often criticized by his own party’s left wing — was already a top GOP target, with Rep. Evan Jenkins and potentially Attorney General Patrick Morrissey challenging him.
When Trump touches down in the state Thursday, he will be visiting the place that explains his surprise 2016 victory as well as the challenges of turning his campaign promises into tangible results.
Commentators were often left scratching their heads at Trump’s dark campaign rhetoric and description of a nation in decline, crushed by job loss, drugs and rising crime. In much of the country, particularly the urban centers Trump so often derided, the rhetoric simply did not match with reality.
But West Virginia was an exception. Trump’s promises to renew American greatness, to “bring back jobs” and restore an idealized version of the American worker struck a chord in a long-suffering state. Trump won 68 percent of the vote there against Hillary Clinton, carrying every one of the state’s 55 counties. In the state’s coal-producing counties, he regularly racked up more than 70 and 80 percent of the vote.
“The demographic profile sort of fits your hypothetical Trump voter – we’re older, we’re lower income, lower levels of education, not very ethnically diverse,” said Sean O’Leary, a senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “If you were to take a stereotypical Trump voter it would look a lot like a stereotypical West Virginian.”
For many in the state, Trump’s dystopian rhetoric felt like a long-awaited acknowledgment. The state’s population peaked around 1950 and, after some rebounding growth over the past two decades, has begun to shrink again since 2010. It has one of the country’s lowest median household incomes at $42,824, well below the national average of $56,516. The life expectancy is more than 3 years below the national average, and in 2015 the rate of opioid overdose deaths was 3.6 times as high in West Virginia as nationwide. The state also had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths overall.
The economic scene is almost as bleak: The state’s labor force participation rate is just 53.1 percent, meaning almost half of the state’s adults are neither working or looking for jobs.
For an electorate that Steve Roberts, the president of West Virginia’s Chamber of Commerce, described as “rural populist,” Trump’s campaign pledge not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security carried special resonance. In supporting Republican health care plans since his inauguration, though, Trump has reneged on the promise to protect Medicaid.
But that has done little to dent his popularity in West Virginia, where much of his appeal is wrapped in his promise to restore the state’s coal industry. The industry, deeply entwined with the state’s culture even as it wanes in economic importance, has seen a stark decline in recent years.
Coal mining jobs declined by half from 2011 to 2016, with the Commerce Department tallying just 11,343 coal miners in the state by the end of 2016 – down from more than 23,000 in 2011. Total mining and logging jobs, though, have increased by about 2,400 over the last year, with 1,200 of those jobs coming just between May and June – a sign that Trump’s policies are working, supporters say.
“We love our coal miners. Great people,” Trump said at an executive order signing in March. “Over the past two years, I’ve spent time with the miners all over America. They told me about the struggles they’ve endured. I actually, in one case, I went to a group of miners in West Virginia — you remember, Shelley — and I said, how about this: Why don’t we get together, we’ll go to another place, and you’ll get another job; you won’t mine anymore. Do you like that idea? They said, no, we don’t like that idea — we love to mine, that’s what we want to do. I said, if that’s what you want to do, that’s what you’re going to do. And I was very impressed. They love the job. That’s what their job is. I fully understand that.”
At a rally in the state during the campaign, Trump famously put on a coal miner’s helmet and mimed as though he was shoveling while the crowd roared.
“We have a tradition of mining and producing coal that people here are really proud of,” Roberts said, noting that Trump’s pro-mining rhetoric – particularly after the Obama administration sought to curtail coal production due to environmental concerns – was a breath of fresh air.
“Plain spokenness is not considered offensive here, the fact that he just sort of calls it like he sees it,” Roberts said. “There probably is a very real feeling that the nation hasn’t done much to help our state during at least the eight years of the Obama administration and now we have a president that says, ‘I like coal, I support the military, I love the Boy Scouts.’”
“The President is proud to have the support of the men and women in places like West Virginia who had been left behind by the policies of the previous administration,” White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters said in a statement to POLITICO. “He’s working for them each and every day, unleashing American businesses and protecting their communities. Just look at the results he’s already gotten. 42,000 mining and logging jobs have been added since January, and a new coal mine has opened its doors. The much-needed resources of the federal government are refocused towards combating the epidemic of drug and opioid addiction. He’s getting better trade deals with our partners around the world. And this is only the beginning.”
Kevin Robillard and Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.