Last May, West Virginia was Bernie territory. The Democratic primary– which drew about 40,000 more voters than the Republican primary– saw Bernie sweep every single county in the state. Statewide it was Bernie 123,860 (51.4%) to Hillary 86,354 (35.8%). Unfortunately for Hillary, many Bernie voters have told pollsters that they would vote for Trump rather than her. An exit poll by CBS News found that among the Bernie voters 44% said they'd vote for Trump, 23% said they'd vote for Hillary and 31% said they'd vote for neither. ABC'd exit poll didn't look as dismal, with Bernie voters going for Hillary with 48% and for Trump with 32%.
That said, more West Virginians voted in the Democratic gubernatorial primary than in their presidential primary– 241,016 in the presidential race and 256,779 in the 3-way gubernatorial race, in which the state's only billionaire, Jim Justice, got 131,845 votes (51.3%). West Virginia was still voting Democratic in 1988 when it was one of only 10 states to go for Dukakis over George H.W. Bush. In 1992 West Virginia was Clinton country– giving bill Clinton a double digit edge over Bush again– and in 1996, the last time West Virginia voted for a Democrat, it gave Clinton a very comfortable 51.51% win over Dole (36.76%) and Perot (11.26%). Since then every election has seen West Virginia give bigger and bigger margins to the GOP in presidential elections. By Obama's reelection bid in 2012 Romney beat him 62.30% to a dismal 35.54%. Only Utah (24.75%), Wyoming (27.82%), Idaho (32.62%), and Oklahoma (33.23%) were redder.
The most recent poll I saw of West Virginia voters showed Trump wiping Clinton out 49-31%. The Republican gubernatorial candidate, state Senate President Bill Cole has attached himself to Trump, while Justice has done all he can do to distance himself from Hillary, even telling West Virginia voters that he won't vote for her. Justice has been “a Democrat” for about half a year. He and his wife contributed $100,000 to Kentuckians for String Leadership, a SuperPAC set up to destroy Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. It spent $6,409,610 on negative ads. The only presidential race he's ever donated in was for George W. Bush 3 times. Most of his contributions have been for Manchin and other far right Democrats.
The most recent poll, 2 weeks ago, showed Justice beating Cole 46-32%. An actual Democrat, Charlotte Pritt, running on the Mountain Party line has 8% and Libertarian David Moran has 5%. Wednesday Mason Adams profiled the race for Politico.
Justice’s industry ties largely make him resistant to the GOP’s otherwise effective “war on coal” messaging, which has proven to be Democrat kryptonite around Appalachia, even in districts beyond the coalfields.
“If you’re going to win in West Virginia, you better be running against Hillary Clinton,” says Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a western Virginia political consultant known for his so-called Bubba Strategy, designed to help Democrats appeal to white working-class voters. Saunders, who has said he’s voting for Trump, says voters don’t trust Clinton or care about her support for funding going to help coalfield economies transition to something else. “She said she’s going to put coal out of business. West Virginia coal miners don’t want a handout. They want their dignity. They want their jobs.”
But Saunders doesn’t have kind words for Justice either: “He’s screwed every coal operator in West Virginia at one time or another.”
Cole sees that reputation as his big opening. His spokesman, Gates, says the Republican campaign will open up attacks on Justice’s business record over the next several weeks. “Jim Justice is a coal operator, but he’s not a coal operator acting in the best interest of West Virginia,” Gates says. “His legacy of unpaid bills is documented across the land.”
That record extends from unpaid federal fines to unpaid vendors to unpaid state and local taxes in multiple states. In a 2014 series on delinquent mines, NPR reported that Justice “stands out” among mining operators, owing nearly $2 million in unpaid fines at the time. That same year, a federal agency issued 39 cessation orders against three Justice companies for reclamation violations at Tennessee mines, including hiring a contractor who planted trees upside down.
The problems have persisted. This year in Kentucky, Justice’s mines missed reclamation deadlines and owed nearly $2 million in delinquent property taxes. That’s an improvement from last year, when he owed $3.5 million in unpaid Kentucky taxes. In southwest Virginia, Tazewell County officials seized machinery, tools and other equipment from a Justice-owned mine this spring to make up for $850,000 in unpaid property taxes. When 2015 West Virginia property taxes became delinquent in April, Justice owed more than $3.9 million.
The pattern apparently extends to Justice’s other businesses, as well: Two companies sued the Greenbrier for unpaid work on its golf courses for the PGA tournament, eventually settling out of court.
Justice’s mining record, which includes extensive use of mountaintop removal mining, as well as his issues with mine reclamation, has made him the target of many an Appalachian environmental activist. The Cole campaign going negative on Justice might not push those green voters to vote Republican, but it might tip them toward Pritt, who is running for governor as the candidate of the Mountain Party, the West Virginia affiliate of the Green Party. Pritt served eight years in the state Legislature and is making her third run for governor. The last time she ran, in 1996, she defeated Manchin in a primary on the way to a loss in the general election.
…Trump will easily win West Virginia, but the winner of the governor’s race will be determined by how willing voters are to split their tickets, and whether Democrats remain loyal to their party or break for Pritt. That’s why Cole’s campaign is attacking Justice on his record as a coal businessman, even as they decry the federal “war on coal.” Whether those voters go to Cole or to Pritt ultimately doesn’t matter, so long as they’re not voting for Justice.
In his attacks on Justice, Cole spokesman Gates repeated one line a couple of times: “At the end of the day, Jim Justice is going to do what’s best for Jim Justice.”
That line has been used about Donald Trump, too. The question for West Virginia voters on Election Day will be whether what’s in Justice and Trump’s best interests is in theirs, too.
Pritt served in the state House of Representatives from 1984 through 1988 and then in the state Senate from 1988-1992, at a time when West Virginia was still a blue state. She was the first woman to ever be nominated by a major party– the Democratic Party– for governor. The Mountain Party is the West Virginia affiliate of the Green Party and was founded in 2000 as the state Democratic Party drifted further and further right. When Pritt decided to run for governor, the state Democratic Party, which is essentially a version of the GOP not as extreme as the actual GOP, freaked out. As the MetroNews put it back in July, “Pritt was once the darling of the liberal wing of the state Democratic Party. Her unyielding support of labor and environmental issues made her a counterbalance to the pro-business” conservatives like Manchin and Tomblin.
In 1996 Pritt beat Manchin for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in a 3-way primary– 40% for her, 33% for Manchin and 20% for Jim Lees. Manchin was immediately out for revenge and like every conservative establishment Democrat always does– as they're doing this year as well– he refused to back Pritt and helped sabotage her election against GOP crackpot Cecil Underwood. Mantis's allies formed a Democrats for Underwood committee which siphoned enough votes away from Pritt to throw the election to Underwood 52-46%.
She joined the Mountain Party a few years ago, saying she had grown “disgusted” with what she said has been the rightward tilt of the state Democratic Party… Pritt’s established liberal bona fides may help her cull support from progressive Democrats and Independents, particularly those who backed Bernie Sanders.
Dishonest and deranged, the state Democratic Party, run by some crooked cousin of Joe Manchin's, put out a statement this week falsely accusing Pritt of being financed by the Republican Party and Bill Cole. Pritt's own statement was pretty inspiring:
For the record, I have NOT received one penny from Bill Cole, his campaign, or the GOP.
My candidacy is focused entirely on ISSUES that the Democratic Party once stood for. During the eight years that I served in the WV Legislature I maintained a 100% voting record on behalf of Senior Citizens, Labor, Small Businesses, West Virginians with Disabilities, women and children’s health issues and protecting drinkable water. My legislative record of supporting people’s interests over corporations earned me the titles of “The Defender of the People” and the “Mother Jones of the WV Legislature.”
The Democratic Party's campaign of fear and misinformation concerning me is not becoming to a party that once represented the people.
I am heart sick over the WV Democratic Party’s recent history of abandoning its progressive candidates. During my gubernatorial candidacy in 1996, Joe Manchin started Democrats for Underwood after I soundly defeated him in the Democratic primary. His Party has abandoned other progressive candidates since. Ask Sue Thorn about her First Congressional District run in 2012, or Virginia Graf about her Second Congressional District candidacy in 2010 or more recently, first Congressional Candidate Mike Manypenny or Mary Ann Claytor, the brilliant African American running for state Auditor. The Joe Manchin Democratic Party of today offers little support for candidates who put The People First!
Distracting registered Democrats from the fact that their own gubernatorial nominee only recently began calling himself a Democrat basically confirms that Joe Manchin’s corporate-controlled ALEC still owns both of WV’s mainstream Political Parties.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis