West Virginians Want Results

West Virginians are more independent — politically — this Independence Day weekend than they have been for many years. Unless Democrat and Republican party leaders find the key to placating a deeply dissatisfied electorate, they may find themselves relegated to what would amount to third-party status, if not complete irrelevance.

Democrats have been hit hardest by growing disenchantment. For decades they ruled the Mountain State, able to call on a solid foundation of voters who identified strongly with the party. But several years ago, registered Democrats in the state dipped below 50 percent of the total. By the May 10 primary, just 46.5 percent of West Virginia voters were registered as Democrats.

Once outnumbered two-to-one by Democrats, Republicans have staged a comeback. Now, 30.2 percent of voters are registered with the GOP.

Growing disillusionment with the Democrat establishment gave Republicans control of both houses of the Legislature in 2014. Just a few months ago, it would have been a good bet that they would gain the governor’s mansion, too. State Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, seemed a shoo-in in this year’s gubernatorial election.

Cole knew he could count on registered Republicans. He also had good reason to expect many independents would go for him. About 23 percent of voters are registered as “none” or “other” in terms of party affiliation (About 0.1 percent are Mountain Party adherents, while 0.26 percent are Libertarians).

If you’re a compulsive gambler who just has to make a bet on the gubernatorial race, you still should put your money on Cole. But don’t wager too much.

West Virginia’s toned-down version of Donald Trump, Greenbrier County billionaire Jim Justice, is more of a threat than many other Democrats would have been in the race for governor. That’s because Justice has never held political office and has been able to paint himself as an outsider.

Now, anyone who knows Cole understands he’s an outsider, too. He is not a career politician. He didn’t take office until May 2010 when, ironically enough, then-Gov. Joe Manchin appointed him to fill a vacancy in the House of Delegates. U.S. Sen. Manchin now backs Justice. From the House, Cole ran for and won a seat in the state Senate in 2012.

Anyone who views him as “the establishment” hasn’t been paying attention to the massive shakeup in state government, engineered primarily by Cole. Trust me on this: Many of the votes for Justice will be by Democrats hoping they can use him to get back to what for them were the good old days.

But it’s image that matters in politics, and Justice is portraying himself as the outsider who, successful in business, can pull the state up by its bootstraps. Just like Trump. All that’s missing is a campaign slogan proclaiming Justice will make West Virginia great again. Well, not quite all. Justice differs from Trump in many other ways, including his reluctance to engage in a face-to-face debate.

What happens in November? That will depend upon a couple of things:

First and foremost, how will Justice’s negatives affect voter? My guess: a lot. His reputation for having to be dragged kicking and screaming to pay some of his bills won’t go over well with many Mountain State voters. His problems with federal coal mine safety regulators won’t help, either.

Second, what will Cole have about which to brag? Remember this about disaffected voters: They aren’t upset with both Republicans and Democrats merely because they think change of any kind will help. They’re disillusioned because they trusted the two parties to solve the nation’s problems and haven’t seen evidence that is happening.

In contrast, Cole can point to some real progress in West Virginia, as a direct result of his leadership in the Legislature. State spending has been cut and job-creating efforts are paying off (albeit slowly, in large measure because of federal initiatives such as the war on coal).

Bottom line: Cole isn’t part of the do-nothing political establishment.

Still, that said, anything can happen in politics. Just ask Donald Trump.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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