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W.Va. GOP Shares Mixed Reactions to Justice Flip

Darron Cummings
AP Photo
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice walks to the podium during a rally for President Donald Trump Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, in Huntington, W.Va.

Democratic Gov. Jim Justice's announcement that he was switching parties came around 7:30 Thursday night, but word of his departure had already been leaked to national outlets like The New York Times and the Associated Press, and it wasn't long before members of both parties from the top down made their thoughts about the decision known.

"Many of his agenda items have been smaller government, lower taxes, lower regulations, and so we're pleased that he's seen fit to join the party," Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael said before the announcement Thursday.

Carmichael and Justice found common ground during the legislative session on reforming the state’s tax code.

Both pushed to drastically cut West Virginia’s personal income tax to incite economic growth, but that was after Justice pushed a plan to increase taxes and create $450 million in new state revenue. 

Republican House Speaker Tim Armstead said Thursday the governor's previous proposals are at least one reason Justice will have to prove he truly has conservative values. 

“The mere fact that he changes his registration doesn’t make him a Republican," Armstead said. "Pursuing Republican policies is what makes a person a Republican.”

Armstead and members of his caucus refused to compromise with Justice and Senate Republicans on tax reform initiatives during the state's extensive special session. 

While the Speaker said he welcomes the governor to the party and looks forward to working with him, he also said it will take a shift in Justice's leadership style to get his members on board. 

“I think he has this belief that if he is a registered Democrat, then all the Democrats need to just go and do what he wants them to do," he said. "I hope he doesn’t believe that that’s what’s going to happen as a registered Republican, that we’re all just going to go lockstep in whatever he says.”


The move has massive implications for the West Virginia Democratic Party which has slowly been losing control of state and national offices over the past decade. 


Former Democratic Senate President and gubernatorial candidate Jeff Kessler laid the blame of current hardships at the feet of the current party chair, Belinda Biafore. 


“If I was Belinda Biafore, I would step aside and resign because she threw all in with him. Turned her back on other, more progressive, lifelong Democrat members to support a recent turncoat and now he’s turncoat on them and run hightail from them," Kessler said. "So, it’s time, I think, for a complete change of our Democratic Party.”


Biafore said in a written statement Thursday that Justice lied to the people of West Virginia and took advantage of Democrats by “taking our money and our votes.”


Standing by Justice’s side as he made the announcement in Huntington, Pres.Trump welcomed the flip. The two have been compared in the past—both self-styled conservative businessmen who appeal to the working class, but the parallels between them were only intensified with the party change.


Both Republicans hold executive branch offices with legislative majorities and conservative-leaning courts, but both will continue to face challenges from factions within their own party as they work toward accomplishing their policy priorities.

Ashton Marra covers the Capitol for West Virginia Public Radio and can be heard weekdays on West Virginia Morning, the station’s daily radio news program. Ashton can also be heard Sunday evenings as she brings you state headlines during NPR’s weekend edition of All Things Considered. She joined the news team in October of 2012.

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