Justice and Salango May Be On The Ballot For Governor, But Democratic Stalwart Manchin’s Presence Still Lingers
With rumors swirling during the summer of 2019 that he might return home to again run for governor, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin decided against trying to leave Washington. But despite that decision, Manchin has still drifted into the race between Republican incumbent Jim Justice and Democratic challenger Ben Salango.
In the 2016 race for Governor, billionaire businessman Jim Justice ran as a Democrat. But less than seven months after taking office, Justice stood on a stage in Huntington alongside President Donald Trump and announced he was returning to the Republican Party.
“Today, I will tell you, as West Virginians, I can’t help you anymore being a Democratic governor,” Justice said. “So, tomorrow, I will be changing my registration to Republican. As a coach, I will tell you it is time to run another play.”
Justice’s party-affiliation switch was less than surprising to those observing the state’s political landscape. West Virginia had quickly turned red in recent years. And even as a Democratic candidate, Justice touted his affinity for Trump.
In the background through it all was Manchin, who had endorsed Justice in 2016.
While Manchin remains one of the most moderate Democrats in all of Washington — and has occasionally positioned himself as friendly with President Trump — Justice’s political maneuvering has not sat well with the senator.
“He decides to change and he wouldn't even have the decency to call. He's gonna change his politics. I'm thinking, ‘My goodness, you just had all these people who fought for your beliefs,’” Manchin told West Virginia Public Broadcasting in an interview last month. “Here's a person that really wanted to work and believed in the policies and philosophies as far as West Virginia Democrats — not a Washington Democrat or Washington Republican. West Virginia. And he just abandoned, without any discussion whatsoever, saying that the Democrats don’t want to work with him.”
As Justice’s first term has moved along, he’s dealt with two teacher’s strikes — which ultimately led to all state employees getting a raise — has tried to revied a struggling coal industry, has supported and signed anti-abortion rights legislation and ushered through a $1.6 billion road bond program. The state budget has bounced back and forth between deficits and surpluses.
But as the 2020 election cycle heated up last fall, all eyes turned to Manchin.
Last re-elected to a six-year term in the Senate in 2018, Manchin had nothing to lose if he decided to run again for governor. A showdown between him and Justice would have made for engaging political theater.
Not only because Manchin was already sparring with Justice in the news media — but also because it might have served as a referendum on the Senator’s party and its waning grasp.
Manchin himself acknowledges the West Virginia Democratic Party has been losing ground for some time. To him, Justice is a side effect of what’s happening on the national stage.
“It is challenged as we all know, right now, because people have supported Donald Trump and his whole different philosophies — not so much Republican as it is Trump's party — and they have followed along and supported that and I hope they're watching and everything right now,” Manchin said. “Because, you know, we're living in Trump’s America.”
But when it comes to Justice, Manchin has taken issue with what he sees as a lack of engagement when it comes to fulfilling the duties of governor. Since taking office in 2017, questions have arisen about how often Justice has been at the Capitol. And with Justice admitting to living full time in Greenbrier County, a state lawmaker has brought a lawsuit to compel the governor to abide by a constitutional mandate to reside in Charleston.
Manchin says he’s disappointed and frustrated over all of this. After all, he says, the job of governor requires one’s attention all day every day.
“I have nothing personal about Jim. Like or dislike, I always get along fine with Jim,” Manchin said.” I'm personally, just basically, totally at odds with how he's running the state — or letting other people run the state as an absentee governor.”
Fast forward to 2020 — the year in which Justice has been flung into the spotlight to lead West Virginia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. After Congress passed a federal relief package known as the CARES Act, Manchin questioned why the $1.25 billion that came to his home state wasn’t leaving the West Virginia treasury.
“Here's Jim Justice, who inherited a tremendous fortune from his father and basically has never had to — because it's not a public company — he's never had to answer to anybody,” Manchin said. “And now having a legislature that has the power of the purse, that he just can't spend and commit and do this and that. And he doesn't want to be accountable to that.”
Justice, who declined through his campaign multiple offers to be interviewed for this story, has fired back at Manchin throughout the pandemic.
“Joe needs to pay attention to what’s in Washington,” Justice said on May 15.
But as the pandemic continued on, so had the primary season. After not agreeing to a debate with his fellow candidates, Justice handedly won the Republican nomination.
With Manchin not in the race and the party’s once-overwhelming stronghold at the statehouse faded away, Democrats faced an identity crisis in trying to figure out how to best challenge Justice.
In the end, they went with attorney, businessman and Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, who was endorsed by Manchin in March.
The incumbent Republican continued to fire shots at Manchin and Salango.
“What Senator Manchin ought to do is concentrate on the job he has in D.C. and get that job done and get that job done properly,” Justice said at a late July briefing on the coronavirus. “He ought not concentrate so much on trying to run Ben Salango’s campaign.”
But Salango argues Manchin's endorsement is about what's best for West Virginia.
“I think that Senator Manchin's endorsement is not because I’m of a particular party. His endorsement is because he's not satisfied with the way that Jim Justice is running the state,” Salango said.
Salango points to an intersection of his experiences as making him qualified to become West Virginia’s chief executive. As a county commissioner, he spurred along a multimillion dollar youth sports complex. He’s also owned a variety of businesses, including a t-shirt printing company and had — up until recently — a stake in local new media such as The Charleston Gazette-Mail. Upon entering the race for governor, Salango announced he was selling off his share of the company.
In the race for governor, Salango has called out Justice and his businesses for racking up large debts — to federal mine safety regulators, to other companies who’ve been left unpaid and for taxes to the state itself.
“When Jim Justice came in 2016, the only experience he had was business experience. And, quite frankly, it wasn't that good of an experience,” Salango said. “He had no government experience whatsoever. So he thought he could come in and run the state like you run a business. It doesn't work that way.”
Salango said getting the state back out in front of its response to the coronavirus is one of his biggest priorities. While West Virginia fared relatively well compared to other states early on during the pandemic, Salango argues there’s a lot to be desired as of late — with some county school systems unable to hold in-person classes, maps and metrics changing and a recent spike in cases.
“We knew it wasn't going to happen immediately. And so the governor, honestly, he relaxed, he thought that this was going to be a cakewalk,” Salango said. “And now that we see that his lack of planning back then we're paying the price for now.”
West Virginia Wesleyan College political science professor Robert Rupp says, despite the worrisome realities of a pandemic, Justice has benefited politically by holding press conferences daily in the beginning before rolling that back to three days a week.
“He turned a good situation into a great situation by responding on a continual stage of discussing the COVID crisis. But it wasn't just Justice,” Rupp said. “Governors across the nation have stepped forward. And part of the benefit of stepping forward is that allows them all this free publicity, and oftentimes positive publicity.”
Rupp said Justice’s wide name recognition, the state’s recent hard swing to the right and the inherent advantage of incumbency puts the sitting Republican as a clear favorite.
“One could start with the argument that there is no longer a strong Democratic — if even there's a Democratic Party left in the state,” Rupp said. “What we have is the success of Joe Manchin and the power that he exerts can be seen by [him] backing Salango.”
And Rupp wonders whether Manchin’s meddling in this governor’s race — whether intentional or circumstantial — has put his own party in a sort of disarray.
“Now, the interesting question is: Did that action undercut a grassroots strong center to revitalize and redefine the Democratic Party in West Virginia?” Rupp asked. “So in a sense, he's not only hovering over West Virginia politics, he's interfering and becoming the dominant player — at least in the Democratic Party.”
Whether Manchin’s influence as a former governor, a critic of Justice and the key player in the Democratic Party can push Salango to a win remains to be seen. To be sure, a lot stands in the way. Justice — who has gotten much attention in a critical time — has plenty in his favor as voters head to the polls or vote absentee through Nov. 3.