West Virginia Governor Jim Justice had been a longtime Republican until 2015, when he switched to the Democratic Party and got himself elected Governor of West Virginia. Now he’s announcing today that he’s switching back to the Republican Party. Donald Trump is flying in to hold an event with him, thinking he’s finally gotten a minor win for his own side. But the reality is that this is not at all what it might initially look like – and it could help the Democrats.
If a member of the U.S. Congress were switching parties, particularly in the Senate where one vote can often make all the difference, it would indeed be a big deal. Moderate politicians don’t usually change their stances on the issues when they switch parties. But in a majority-rule body like Congress, they do tend to switch their votes on procedural matters, and on legislation they don’t care about, in favor of their new party. However, this kind of dynamic doesn’t exist for Governors.
In reality, Jim Justice never stopped being a conservative Republican when he changed his party allegiance to Democrat; he merely saw it as the best strategic chance of getting elected Governor. The “Democrats” in West Virginia tend to be moderate-conservatives in nature and bear little resemblance to the Democrats around the nation, who are moderate-liberal to liberal. It’s why West Virginia tends to elect Democratic governors, even while voting overwhelmingly for Republican Presidents. Justice is now betting that, because he’s already in office, he can get away with switching back to his true identity as a Republican ahead of his reelection attempt in 2020.
For now, literally nothing will change. Trump thinks he can bolster himself by taking credit for Jim Justice’s return to the Republican Party, but the story is already being drowned out by today’s avalanche of Russia scandal news, and will have been forgotten in national politics by tomorrow. Justice won’t change his positions on any issues as a result of having switched parties, so this affects nothing in terms of policy. But when he does run again in 2020, it may actually be good news for the Democratic Party from a strategic standpoint.
Justice is so conservative that he bears almost no resemblance to the Democratic Party whatsoever. If he were running for reelection as a Democrat in 2020, the party would have to sit back and swallow him as their candidate; it wouldn’t be worth trying a primary challenge. But because he’ll be running for reelection as a Republican, it means the Democratic Party can run someone in the general election who’s a bit closer to being a real Democrat.
This doesn’t mean Democrats around the nation should get their hopes up too high about some kind of progressive takeover in the state. In a state as conservative as West Virginia, liberals cannot win a statewide election under any circumstances – and anyone who fails to understand that basic concept shouldn’t be anywhere near politics. But the Democrats can run a moderate candidate against the conservative Jim Justice, and they might now have a chance of unseating him.
Keep in mind that a moderate Democrat like Senator Joe Manchin, who votes with the Democratic Party around 70% of the time, is the closest thing to a “real” Democrat who would have any chance of winning the 2020 West Virginia Governor race. If progressives insist on running a far left Democratic candidate in that race, it’ll mean automatic reelection for Jim Justice in a blowout. But if the Democrats handle the race smartly, with a moderate candidate who can be viable in West Virginia, they just might end up better off than if the Republican-at-heart Justice had officially remained a Democrat.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report