President Donald Trump promised a big announcement Thursday night at his campaign-style rally in West Virginia. The announcement turned out to be the decision by Gov. Jim Justice to switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Trump took credit for the switch, and cast Justice as the leading edge of common-sense populists who are just plain sick of political correctness and the national Democratic Party. For more perspective on Justice’s move and how Trump is perceived in the Mountain State, I reached out to one and only Hoppy Kercheval, a radio talk show host – and columnist – in the state. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: The Jim Justice party switch. How expected or unexpected was it?
Hoppy: The rumors had been circulating for some time. He talked about it with close advisers, wondering if the move would empower him to accomplish more with the Republican majorities in the House of Delegates and the Senate.
But the talk never seemed to go any farther. After all, Justice had just won election as a Democrat a few months earlier. How wise would it be to run as a member of one party, then switch not long after the election?
Additionally, Justice didn’t seem to pay much attention to party labels. He didn’t fly the Democratic flag during the campaign and during the legislative session he was as apt to bond with Republicans as Democrats. He said party affiliation was not important to him; he just wanted to work with anyone who could make West Virginia better.
Cillizza: It’s been less than 24 hours. But how is the Justice switch going over in the state? Do you anticipate him having ANY electoral problems because of it?
Hoppy: The news is shocking. Even his top staff and close advisers did not know. One told me he found out about it on Twitter. Another told me yesterday he wouldn’t believe it until he heard it from the Governor’s mouth.
Anti-Trump protesters gathered at the Huntington venue last night chanted, “Jim Justice is a traitor.”
Republican leaders are cautious. Remember, this is a governor who proposed $500 million in new taxes during the last legislative session and got into some personal battles with them.
But also keep in mind that Donald Trump is popular here. He got 68% of the vote last November and Gallup still has his approval rating in the state at 60%. Right now, being aligned with Trump in West Virginia is a good thing.
Cillizza: Sen. Joe Manchin is now one of two statewide elected Democrat. He’s also up for reelection next November. How concerning is the Justice switch for Manchin – if at all?
Hoppy: Manchin is disappointed. He and Justice are close. In fact, Justice called Manchin in 2015 and pledged his support for Manchin if he decided to run for governor. BUT, Justice also said if Manchin was not going to run, he wanted to.
Manchin is politically pragmatic. So after the dust settles, I don’t think it will mean much one way or another in the Senate race. It would be hard to imagine Justice inserting himself in the Senate race in support of the Republican candidate. My guess is Justice stays out of that and Manchin and the nominee fight it out.
Cillizza: Trump appeared with Justice at a rally last night and seemed to get a hero’s welcome. Is Trump as popular as he was in November 2016? Why or why not?
Hoppy: As noted above, Trump is still very strong here, and it’s less about party than populism. Trump tapped into the anger and frustration in rural America. Elites want to paint that as racism and xenophobia, and there is some of that. But, West Virginia and rural America has a series of socioeconomic problems – drugs, economy, family breakdown – and they feel like they are being ignored, especially by the national Democratic Party.
While all the talk in DC has been about Russia and tweets, Trump has actually followed through on campaign promises made in West Virginia, including pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, stopping the Clean Power Plan and reining in the Environmental Protection Agency.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The one word West Virginians would use to describe Trump and Justice is __________.” Now, explain.
As I said in No. 4, this area is struggling through some difficult times. Small town West Virginia and small town America have myriad challenges that have nothing to do with climate change or identity politics. Trump campaigned on “Make America Great Again” and Justice constantly talks about how West Virginia deserves better.
These themes align to provide a reason to hope. It’s really less about party politics and more about a kind of populism.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to note that West Virginia treasurer John Perdue is a Democrat who was also elected statewide.