Former Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher to Challenge Gov. Justice in 2020 GOP Primary

Apr 16, 2019

A former West Virginia Department of Commerce secretary forced out of his job last year will challenge his old boss for the governor’s seat.

Businessman Woody Thrasher announced Tuesday, April 16, he’s running for the Republican nomination for governor in 2020. He filed precandidate paperwork at the Secretary of State’s office that afternoon.

"We deserve a full-time governor who is ready, willing and able, around the clock, to bring us jobs, to fix our roads and to preserve our conservative values," Thrasher said in a statement following his announcement at an event in Bridgeport.

Thrasher and his father founded Bridgeport-based engineering firm The Thrasher Group in 1983. The business has since grown to about 700 employees and 11 offices across seven states.

"We need real leadership that creates economic growth to bring jobs and keep our young people here," he said.

The primary challenge will make for a race to watch between two West Virginia business moguls who have both been wrapped up in controversy during their time in public service.

Early on, Thrasher had seemingly won the favor of Justice. In November 2017, Thrasher and Justice announced China Energy’s intention to invest $84 billion in West Virginia for development in the natural gas and petrochemical industries. Details of those projects have yet to be made public.

Thrasher resigned from his post as commerce secretary in June 2018 -- at the request of Gov. Jim Justice -- amid news that the RISE flood recovery program at the time had spent only $1.1 million of $150 million allocated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Those funds were to rebuild homes following a devastating flood two years prior.

Justice’s campaign, which recently tapped a former Trump state director to run the 2020 gubernatorial re-election bid, responded quickly to news of Thrasher’s announcement.

“When Governor Justice appointed Mr. Thrasher as the Secretary of Commerce, the Governor, and all West Virginians, expected him to put the people of this state above his own interests,” said Justice’s re-election campaign manager Mike Lukach in a news release.

“It’s sad that the opposite happened. Instead, Mr. Thrasher used his appointed position to travel all over the world on the taxpayers’ dime to promote the private companies of his friends, and at the same time, forgot about the RISE flood relief program and all the West Virginians still recovering from the 2016 floods,” Lukach added.

But Justice may be vulnerable when it comes to a re-election campaign. The billionaire businessman-turned-governor has been plagued by a series of media reports delving into his businesses’ finances.

Earlier this month, the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section subpoenaed the state commerce department to hand over documents related to the Justice family-owned The Greenbrier resort, a gold tournament held there and an associated charity. A recent investigation from the Ohio Valley ReSource also showed Justice family coal operations owe more than $4 million in delinquent mine fines.

With the 2020 primary more than a year away, Thrasher’s announcement adds to a growing list of candidates running for governor. According to the Secretary of State’s office, 10 others have filed pre-candidate paperwork to run for West Virginia’s highest office.

The West Virginia Republican Party, which sent out a news release promoting a January announcement for Justice’s re-election bid, said they welcome Thrasher to the GOP. He had, until recently, been registered as a Democrat.

“Primary races are a sign of a growing Republican Party, and the voters will get to decide the Republican nominee,” said West Virginia Republican Party chair Melody Potter. “We're focused on ensuring our Party is ready to support Republican nominees from President Donald Trump and Senator Shelley Moore Capito at the top of the ticket to local races at the bottom.”

Potter was not immediately available for further comment.

West Virginia’s primary election will be held Tuesday, May 12, 2020.