Ticket-splitting was both alive and well and a thing of the past in the 2016 election, depending on the state. On the one hand, every Senate race tracked the presidential election, but several states elected a governor while the other party won its electoral votes, sometimes by blowout margins. Republican Phil Scott was elected governor of Vermont while Hillary Clinton carried the state by over 25%, and Democrat Roy Cooper narrowly won in North Carolina despite Trump carrying the state.
One of the few success stories that Democrats had in 2016 was in West Virginia. Although Trump carried the state by the largest margin in history, Democrat Jim Justice beat Republican State Senate President Bill Cole by around 7% and about 50,000 votes.
Although this seems shocking at first glance, it is not exactly unprecedented. Democratic Governor Earl Ray Tomblin was reelected in 2012 when Mitt Romney carried the state. In fact, every governor elected in West Virginia in the 21st century has been a Democrat.
What allowed Justice to win in a state where Trump carried every single county? Justice is West Virginia’s richest man, and has worked in the coal industry for decades. Unsurprisingly, his campaign signs simply say “Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.” He also received early national press for being one of the first big-name Democrats to announce that they had no interest in voting for Hillary Clinton.
Justice’s strengths as a candidate were evident dating back to the Democratic primary where he steamrolled over West Virginia’s Senate Minority Leader and a US Attorney, winning the primary with over 50% of the vote. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders’s vote total almost doubled Clinton’s, and in the 2012 Democratic primary, Barack Obama lost 10 counties to a “yahoo prisoner in Texas.” Justice was running against both Cole and West Virginia’s political environment, which has turned decisively against Democrats in just the past few years (for more on West Virginia’s recent political history, read my post-2014 analysis here).
However, Justice was perceived to have a fighting chance all the way through to Election Day. In a POLITICO article that asked if West Virginia was holding “America’s weirdest election,” the comparisons between the campaigns that Justice and Trump ran could not be clearer:
Like Trump, Justice has been accused of not paying his bills and being out mainly for himself. And like Trump, Justice is running a nontraditional campaign that exists well outside the partisan pattern, eschewing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in favor of a cult of personality based around his exploits in business. As West Virginia’s only billionaire, he can self-fund, pumping $2.2 million into his campaign through mid-June. Justice faces stiff crosswinds, however, running as a down-ballot Democrat in one of Trump’s strongest states.
In the same way that Democrats tried to use some of Trump’s business dealings against him, Republicans tried to make an issue out of Justice’s business climate:
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.
Republicans even tried to convince liberal Democrats to support the Mountain Party, which is the West Virginia branch of the Green Party, all to no avail. Justice’s strengths as a coal baron far outweighed any weaknesses that unpaid bills might have had on his candidacy.
While the election for the DNC Chair increasingly seems to be a race to the left, Democrats might wish to examine Justice’s victory if they hope to have any chance at winning the races that eluded them in 2016.