Unlike the national race for president, no one was surprised about the gubernatorial outcome in West Virginia. ¶ Jim Justice, a West Virginia icon, businessman, industrialist, farmer, coal baron, big dreamer, high school boys and girls basketball coach and self-defined marketer-in-chief, won the gubernatorial election. In fact, he won with ease. ¶ What won’t be a walk in the park is fixing underlying, systemic problems with the state budget that in many ways are a direct reflection of the state’s demographics.
What was predicted in the election, however, did in fact happen. Thousands of supporters of Republican Donald Trump crossed over party lines on the ballot and cast a vote for Justice, the Democratic candidate for governor.
Justice took home 49 percent of the vote and Sen. Bill Cole, another son of the southern West Virginia coalfields, garnered 42 percent. In the president’s race, West Virginia sided with Trump by a 69 percent to 26 percent count.
The red wave that has displaced Democratic majorities in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate in Charleston over the past few election cycles did not touch the governor’s office.
William Hal Gorby, a history professor at West Virginia University, and Jim White, a political science professor at Concord University, said the gubernatorial race was not a shocker.
Both White and Gorby said even though the state is trending Republican and overwhelmingly supported President-elect Donald Trump, there were other factors that came into play down ballot in addition to an affiliation with political parties.
Gorby said what he finds interesting isn’t how quickly the state went to Trump, but how state races didn’t follow that same pattern.
“It defies stereotypes,” he said. “They are smart politically and look at every race on the ballot and didn’t just say, ‘I’m going to vote Republican all the way down the ballot.’ They went through and made conscious decisions to pick Justice over Cole and certain state senators over others.”
Part of this could have to do with straight-ticket voting not being an option anymore. However, Gorby said there are other factors as well.
“You would expect with the margin Trump had that there would be a down-the-ballot carryover and a Republican would have won the governor’s office and gained significantly in the Senate as well,” he said.
Just ahead of election day, two national polls differed on the gubernatorial race. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball said the race was a tossup, showing Justice leading the race, even with Trump dominating the state. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, meanwhile, had the gubernatorial race as a tossup/tilt Democrat.
White said notoriety definitely came into play with the gubernatorial race.
“He’s one of the most famous men, maybe the most famous, in the state,” White said.
Subhead in here
Gorby said one of the reasons he thinks the races turned out as they did could have had something to do with right to work and prevailing wage laws.
“I would guess that the legislation pushed in the last couple of sessions in Charleston influenced not all state voters, but in heavily blue-collar workers in heavily union houses, they made the conscious decision,” Gorby said. “Cole was one of the sponsors of the right to work bill, so some people were not going to vote for him because of that and vote for Jim Justice instead.”
Gorby also said the budget and the need for the special session to tackle it could also have had an effect on the gubernatorial race.
“Justice made some consistent attachment that he (Cole) was largely to blame on why that extra session happened,” Gorby said.
Looking toward the next legislative session, both White and Gorby were positive that Justice will work with legislators. Gorby said he thinks there will be more common ground.
“I think Justice is more willing to work with Republicans on things,” he said. “I think he will be forced to do that because they can override any veto. He can’t just do what he wants to do. With him not being a long career politician, he knows that. I don’t think he would want to get into that partisan bickering with the Legislature.”
White said he doesn’t think it will make that big of a difference with working with the Legislature.
“With regard to making deals, I don’t know how big of a difference that makes,” White said. “Tomblin was willing to work across the aisle. The main difference is the election is over rather than the election is upcoming. Before, you don’t want to make unpopular taxes or unpopular cuts.”
Subhead in here
Justice has said many times he will “absolutely not raise taxes,” and also has reiterated that he doesn’t think the Legislature can cut its way out of budget woes.
Justice has said that the state, instead, needs to focus on growing its way out of the problem, mentioning a focus on tourism, education, furniture manufacturing and bringing back coal jobs.
“The analogy I always give when talking about the federal budget in class,” White said, is “of people promising to balance the budget without cutting spending and raising taxes ... it’s like those infomercials – you know, lose weight without diet and exercise.
“To have a faster growing economy, you need more prosperity, so you don’t have to make cuts or raise taxes,” White said. “In the long term, that is arguably feasible but dealing with the problem in the next 12 months? It’s hard to see how the numbers add up.”
Justice also has previously said that he just needs 10 months to turn the state around.
White said the state has a big hole that is continually growing, mentioning the state has systemic difficulties instead of cyclical difficulties. One of the problems is the demographics, he said, mentioning the state’s aging population, the fact that the state is losing population and is not a high-income population.
White said solutions are out there for the state but they will take time.
“We can’t get tourism here unless we have good roads and airports, ways for people to get here,” he said.
“With high-tech firms locating here, we don’t have a highly-educated workforce. That’s just a fact,” White said. “We have the lowest proportion of citizens with a college degree. High-tech firms go to places with a highly-educated workforce.
“If you want a high-tech workforce, you have to pour a lot of money into schools and develop the workforce,” White said. “That’s not this year or the next year. That’s a generation from now.”