West Virginia governor and former Democrat Jim Justice made headlines this past April for bringing a feces-topped copy of a Republican-passed budget proposal to the state capitol to express his extreme disdain for the right-wing legislation. Now, four months later, he has decided to join their political party.
Justice made the announcement on August 3 at a Donald Trump rally in Huntington, West Virginia, a city that has maintained support for Trump since he became the Republican party presidential nominee. Met with cheers from the audience who carried “Drain the Swamp” signs and sported “Make America Great Again” hats, the only reason Justice gave for leaving the Democratic party was that the organization “walked away” from him.
Such turncoat behavior appeared to come as little surprise to the rally attendees, possibly due to the fact that this is not the first time Justice has switched political parties. He was previously registered as an independent and as a Republican before running for governor as a Democrat in 2015.
Whether or not it anticipated Justice’s return to the Republican party, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), which spent over $1 million on Justice’s election campaign in 2016, was unhappy with his latest flip. DGA Executive Director Elisabeth Pearson released a statement about Justice’s decision, and her closing remarks should sound familiar to people who have been following the FBI’s yearlong investigation into Trump’s political and financial ties with Russia.
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Pearson mentioned Justice’s staggering debt, which she claims accumulated after Justice, as a coal mine owner, made a “deal with a Russian coal company.” She closed her statement by expressing hope U.S. taxpayers would not be “on the hook to bail out Jim Justice’s personal finances” if the governor “cut a deal” with Trump.
The Russian “deal” Pearson referenced began in 2009 when Justice sold mines to Russia’s Mechel mining company for nearly $600 million before repurchasing the mines in 2015 for $5 million, less than 1 percent of the price for which he sold the properties. While not illegal, this deal undoubtedly added to Justice’s $1.5 billion net worth, making him the richest person in West Virginia. In regard to Justice’s “personal finances,” Pearson is referring to the nearly $15 million Justice owes in delinquent taxes and fines across six states.
Speculation of business deals with Russia is not the only commonality between Trump and Justice. The two are rumored to be good friends, a relationship that continued to blossom during Trump’s recent visit to West Virginia, where Trump spoke at the Boy Scouts of America’s National Scout Jamboree in Glen Jean. Such close contact with the president very well could have influenced Justice to return to his former political party, especially if the president were willing to negotiate tax breaks for the governor, as Pearson suggested in her statement.
Justice’s switch serves to further punctuate the United States’ ideological geographic divide, as elected Democratic officials continue to be nearly extinct in the Southeast. For West Virginia, this could result in a fully red state legislature in 2018 when U.S. Senator Joe Manchin faces re-election. Of West Virginia’s three representatives and two senators, Manchin is the only Democratic voice in the state’s legislature. Without a political ally in the governor’s office, Manchin’s path to re-election has just gotten a little more complicated. West Virginians could potentially eliminate Democratic lawmakers entirely from their state legislature next year, a drastic change from past decades, when Democrats ran the state without opposition and Appalachia was a stronghold of Democratic support.
Justice’s switch will have repercussions beyond Appalachia. He is now the 34th Republican governor in the country, a record high in U.S. history, and raises to 26 the number of states in which there is both a Republican governor and state legislature. Currently, there are only six states with both a Democratic governor and state legislature, and 18 states where Republicans either hold the governor’s seat or both chambers of a state’s legislature. This means Republican lawmakers will have less direct Democratic opposition, and thus will have less difficulty passing laws that adhere to their conservative ideology.
As for his stance on core issues, it remains unclear how Justice’s political shift will influence his decision-making. It is possible his opinions will remain unchanged because, up until this point, Justice’s decisions have subscribed more to Republican ideology than Democratic ones. Even as a Democrat, Justice demonstrated his disinterest and lack of commitment to providing reproductive health care to West Virginians, as made evident by his signing a bill into law requiring women under the age of 18 to have parental consent to have an abortion. By adding an additional step to a minor’s process for seeking abortion, Justice was supporting the Republican platform, which advocates any legislation that prevents women from having abortions.
Justice’s personal association with the coal mining industry has continuously been more in line with Republican values as well. Traditional Republican ideology supports “American energy independence” and, as such, would support the use of U.S. coal mines to provide energy to the country. Presumably, Justice would be interested in expanding the coal mine industry across Appalachia.
However, one possible area in which West Virginians might see a shift pertains to the governor’s stance on West Virginia Medicaid and his support for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Justice said recent Republican-supported plans to replace the ACA would “cripple [West Virginians] beyond belief.” This past June, Justice even sent a letter to his state’s U.S. senators thanking them for voting against previous attempts to reduce the ACA. Now that Justice has publicized his camaraderie with Trump, though, he might find himself under extra pressure to support future legislation that would leave an estimated 184,000 West Virginians without health insurance.
Caitlin Hays Gaffin, director of operations at WV FREE—a West Virginia reproductive health, rights, and justice organization—wrote in an email to Rewire that, at this point, it is unclear how Justice’s return to the GOP will affect reproductive health care in the state. “The fact is, Governor Jim Justice’s recent party switch, while disheartening, is in line with the type of disingenuous behavior he has shown us so far,” she wrote. “We’re not sure that the party switch itself will drastically affect the landscape for reproductive health care access in West Virginia, but with this move, Justice has only further proven that he is not one to stand by the principles and values to which he has aligned himself.”
While Justice has yet to release an official statement explaining his return to the Republican party, his switch is being regarded as one sign of the end of “conservative white Democrats.” Justice’s switch serves as an example of the dissipation of common ground between the two political parties, and U.S. residents should expect to feel the effects of this strife in parts of the country well beyond Appalachia. As Justice’s switch proves, lawmakers can forsake political alliances and act as wildcards, making it even more challenging to predict the future for contentious topics, such as the fate of the ACA.