W.Va. Governor's Race Reveals Identity Crisis Among Both Parties

Jan 16, 2020

According to the Secretary of State’s website, 18 people filed financial disclosures last year declaring their intention to run for governor against incumbent Republican Jim Justice. The official period to file just began in the state, and candidates have until Jan. 25 to get their paperwork submitted to the Secretary of State’s website. West Virginia's primary election is May 12. 

Independent producer Kyle Vass looks at some of the candidates running against incumbent Republican Jim Justice, who was elected a Democrat but switched to the Republican party only seven months into his term. 

Part One: GOP

Normally, gubernatorial incumbents don’t have to worry about being challenged from within their own party. But with six republican candidates challenging Gov. Jim Justice in 2020, this race is anything but normal.

To understand why the incumbent governor, a Republican, has such a large field of candidates from his own party running against him, we have to go back to 2017, when Justice switched parties. 

“It was unexpected. He had been such a down-the-line Democrat with Joe Manchin,” ousted Wood County GOP Chairman Rob Cornelius said. “No one knew what to make of it.”

Cornelius said he refused to start supporting the governor just because he switched to his party. In fact, Cornelius went as far as to go to newly elected State GOP Chairwoman Melody Potter. He wanted the state’s GOP leadership to distance themselves from Justice.

“Melody had pledged to me…that she would be an independent person. She would not sell out to the now-Republican governor,” said Cornelius, who recalled a conversation he had with Potter about Justice's switch to the GOP. "She believed he was corrupt and would be a bad person to have in the party -- that he was dangerous to our reputation, our morals and our standards, and she would have nothing to do with him.”

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice gives a speech during a Department of Tourism conference Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018, at the Morgantown Event Center.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting file photo

Cornelius said he recorded his conversation with Potter, because he believed Potter would later change her story. And almost a year after this conversation, when Melody Potter accepted a large donation to the state GOP from Justice and his wife, Rob Cornelius uploaded the conversation to YouTube. Shortly after that, Potter issued a letter firing Rob Cornelius, in the interest of “effective organization and party harmony,” citing the state GOP bylaws.

Cornelius said his firing created a precedent in the West Virginia GOP: speak out against Justice or GOP leadership, and even an elected official could get fired. As a county chairman, Cornelius was elected, and just like that, he was gone.

He filed suit against Potter and the Secretary of State Mac Warner over his dismissal, and that case is ongoing. We reached out to Melody Potter, as well as Justice’s campaign, for multiple interview requests, but they had no comment.

Cornelius isn’t the only Republican official claiming to have been fired by Justice’s administration or GOP leadership for threatening the governor’s power. One of them is now running his own campaign against the governor -- Woody Thrasher. 

Credit Adobe Stock

Thrasher was Justice’s commerce secretary but was fired in 2016. Now he’s running the second-largest campaign in the Republican primary in terms of money raised.

According to Justice’s administration, Thrasher mishandled federal money earmarked for victims of the 2016 West Virginia flood. But Thrasher said the allegations aren’t true.

In terms of fundraising, Mike Folk is running the third-largest campaign in the Republican Primary. He’s behind Thrasher and Justice, who are number one and two, respectively.

Folk explained his platform is largely focused on taxes.

“Instead of going to the taxpayers for more money when the budget’s tight, I think we ought to do like every household in West Virginia has to do, which is tighten their belt,” said Folk, who argues that Justice is not being fiscally conservative enough.

“In 2017, when the current governor was new to office, he campaigned on being a businessman that could balance the budget without raising taxes. He instead proposed the largest tax increase in West Virginia history,” Folk said.

West Virginia Wesleyan College political science professor Rob Rupp said the way he interprets the crowded gubernatorial race, is that many people from both parties frankly have a hard time trusting Justice.

“Perhaps Justice himself is indicative of what's happened to the breakdown a party labels,”  Rupp said.

Having a Republican governor in West Virginia is unusual. But what’s really unusual, Rupp said, is that same governor having to defend his position from candidates who are claiming to be even more Republican than he is.

“He’s alienated the Democrats by leaving his party allegiance. And he's distrusted by Republicans because of his recent conversion.”

Part Two: Democrats

Democrats in West Virginia find themselves trying to displace a Republican governor for the first time in two decades. And with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin deciding not to come back and run for governor, a lot of questions remain as to might be able to take back the governor’s mansion.

Six Democratic candidates filed pre-candicay papers in 2018: Jody Murphy, Ben Salango, Cecil Silva, Edwin Vanover, Stephen Smith and Ron Stollings, who said he brings a lot of experience to the ticket with his three terms in the West Virginia Senate.

Another candidate, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, said he’s running because he wants to bring his economic development experience to the governor’s mansion.

“One of the main things that I've done, as Kanawha County Commissioner, is the Shawnee Sports Complex. It has brought in tens of millions of dollars in the sports tourism industry,” he said.

Both Stollings and Salango are very quick to distance themselves from Democrats at the national level.

Credit Adobe Stock

“I have a proven track record of being a centrist, more socially and economically moderate than our Washington, D.C., friends,” Stollings said. “I’m not far left, am a moderate Democrat. People call it a West Virginia Democrat.”

The term West Virginia Democrat refers to Democrats who tend to vote more moderately than most Democrats across the country, Rupp explained.

“In West Virginia when you're a Democrat in an increasingly conservative state, you do what I call the West Virginia Democrat two-step, which is you're taking a step away from the National Party.”

Rupp said West Virginian Democrats have become increasingly conservative during the past 15 to 20 years.

And then you have community organizer Stephen Smith, who is a West Virginian and a Democrat. But, don’t call him a West Virginia Democrat.  

“What you see in West Virginia politics is either people sell their souls to big corporate interests and lobbyists and PACs, or they're already a rich guy who's made a bunch of money off the backs of other folks and they put their own money in the race,” said Smith, whose campaign raised a record breaking amount in small donations for a West Virginia gubernatorial candidate.

And, he sees his race for governor as just one race in the “West Virginia Can’t Wait” campaign he helped start. They’re currently backing 58 candidates in various elections around the state. 

“What we need are candidates at every level of office and a politics that responds to everyday working people, not to the wealthy few. And we can have that government, but only if all of us come together and only if we stop waiting on some politician, any politician, to come and save us,” Smith said.

“Smith is really mobilizing Democrats getting a lot of small contributions,” Rupp said. “Usually in West Virginia politics, it wouldn't work -- that populist candidate makes a challenge, but usually doesn't win. But of course, these are not usual times and Smith is not running a usual campaign.”

Rupp said he sees an identity crisis in both parties in West Virginia’s 2020 gubernatorial race.

“For the Democrats, it’s more strategic long range, where are they going to bank their future on the populist emphasis of a Smith, or a more moderate and traditional one? And the argument for the Democrats is not just about this election, it’s about the next three elections. And the Republicans are just saying how they want to stay in power.”

This story is part of an episode of Inside Appalachia that looks at politics across Central Appalachia.