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The decline of the conservative white Democrat: Jim Justice switches to the GOP

Justin Merriman / Stringer / Getty Images

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced Thursday night in a rally hosted by President Trump that he is switching to the Republican Party, only nine months after being elected as a Democrat.

“The Democrats walked away from me,” Justice said to the crowd of 9,000 Trump supporters. “I tell you as West Virginians, I can’t help you anymore being a Democrat governor.”

Trump said Justice’s switch is a result of the trend of people feeling let down by the Democratic Party.

“Governor Justice did something else important tonight. He showed the country that our agenda rises above left or right,” Trump said. “It’s an agenda for all of the people, especially for the tens of millions of forgotten people.”

The Democratic Governors Association slammed Justice’s decision to switch, one they say was made with no input from or discussion with them.

“Jim Justice deceived the voters of West Virginia when he ran as a Democrat 8 months ago,” said Democratic Governors Association executive director Elisabeth Pearson in a statement. “West Virginians have learned that they simply can't trust Jim Justice. He will always put his financial interests above the needs of West Virginians.”

The statement went on to question the motive behind Justice’s decision to switch parties.

“As Republicans have repeatedly said, Jim Justice owes millions of dollars in unpaid company taxes, after a deal with a Russian coal company. The debts have only worsened during Justice’s term as governor. If President Trump cut a deal, we hope it does not put U.S. taxpayers on the hook to bail out Jim Justice’s personal finances,” Pearson said in the statement.

But though it might seem odd for a politician to switch his party so soon after getting elected, this is yet another data point in a decades-long die-off of conservative white Democrats.

Who is Jim Justice?

The West Virginia governor has some similarities to Trump. A businessman turned politician, Justice is a 66-year-old West Virginia native who has switched political parties in the past. He inherited a coal business from his father, and according to Forbes, he is the richest man in West Virginia, with a net worth estimated at $1.6 billion.

In 2016, he announced that he would leave his lifelong career in the coal industry to run for governor. The year before announcing his campaign, in February 2015, he changed his party registration from Republican to Democrat. He has also previously registered as an independent.

Like Trump, he is also the owner of a famous resort and country club, the Greenbrier in West Virginia. Justice bought the resort for $20.5 million in 2009, rescuing it from bankruptcy.

In November, Justice narrowly won his campaign for governor with 49 percent of the vote. Trump, on the other hand, had no difficulty sweeping West Virginia with nearly 68 percent of the vote, 41 points ahead of Clinton. Justice did not endorse Hillary Clinton’s campaign even though he was a Democrat at the time.

Why does his switch matter?

West Virginia used to be a blue state, but in recent years it has flipped to be Republican-leaning. But the state has always been socially conservative. In fact, what we’re seeing in West Virginia is described by many political scientists as one of the final states to switch from a predominantly blue, socially conservative state to a red one.

Looking back at presidential elections from the Great Depression through the 1990s, the Democratic Party has almost always swept the state. However, this began to change in the 2000s, when George W. Bush won West Virginia by 6 points. Every year since then, the Republican candidate has gained a greater victory over the Democratic one.

Slate’s Betsy Woodruff explains West Virginia’s switch:

But by 2000, tectonic changes in the state’s politics were underway. West Virginians tended to be economically liberal but socially conservative, and as social issues like abortion came to the forefront in national politics, the state started looking better for Republicans. The leftward tilt of the national Democratic Party helped matters, too.

Coal may also be another big driver of the switch from blue to red. According to a Washington Post article analyzing the state’s cut ties with the Democratic Party, many West Virginians attribute coal’s decline to President Obama’s emissions regulations:

Leaders in both parties say that what has happened to politics in West Virginia begins with what has happened to coal — an industry that employs about 32,000 in the state, fewer than half the number of jobs it provided in 1976.

Although there always have been booms and busts, people “are convinced that President Obama wants to destroy the coal industry, and that’s what’s driving our politics,” said Raamie Barker, a top adviser to Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.”

Feeding on West Virginia’s disappointment with the loss of jobs in the coal industry, Trump promised time and time again throughout his campaign to bring back coal jobs, one of the reasons he’s become so popular there.

Jim Justice’s switch is one sign of the end of the era of the conservative white Democrat, and might make the 2018 election increasingly difficult for West Virginia’s lone Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, to seek reelection. Manchin is one of 10 Democratic senators running in states that Trump won, making the battle to reclaim a majority in the Senate a difficult one.

In response, Manchin stated that he was disappointed by the decision and will not be joining him and switching to the Republican Party.

“While I do not agree with his decision, I have always said that I will work with anyone, no matter their political affiliation, to do what is best for the people of West Virginia,” Manchin said in a statement.

Manchin will run against Rep. Evan Jenkins, who also switched from Democrat to Republican to run for Congress in the state.

“I simply couldn’t be a part of a liberal agenda that was so contrary to who we are and what we believe in West Virginia,” Jenkins said about his political switch.

Nationally, this leaves Democrats with only 15 governors among the 50 states, and points to the broader theory that Democrats lack a central leader and fail to connect with rural areas.

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