At a rally with President Trump in West Virginia on Thursday night, the state's Gov. Jim Justice declared that he is leaving the Democratic Party that he said abandoned him and is joining the Republican Party.
“The Democrats walked away from me,” Justice told the crowd of thousands gathered at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena in Huntington. “I can’t help you any more being a Democrat governor.”
“As a coach, I would tell you that it’s time to run another play,” he added.
Justice, who until 2015 was registered as a Republican, is one of the last remaining Democrats elected to statewide positions in the state. Trump won West Virginia by 42 points over Democrat Hillary Clinton. The switch was first reported by the New York Times.
After being brought to the stage in the middle of Trump's rally, Justice praised Trump as a “great president.” He also touted his relationships with Trump's children, including Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., both of whom he said he has gotten to know personally.
“This man is a good man,” Justice said of Trump. “He’s got a backbone, he’s got real ideas, he cares about America, he cares about us in West Virginia.”
Justice's announcement was made under virtual secrecy, according to Democratic Party officials, who said that the governor did not inform the party nor did he inform his own staff before the news became public.
Democrats blasted Justice's announcement and suggested that the coal and hospitality executive was influenced by his personal financial interest — to say nothing of his political ones — when he made the switch.
“Jim Justice deceived the voters of West Virginia when he ran as a Democrat 8 months ago,” said Democratic Governors Association executive director Elisabeth Pearson. “West Virginians have learned that they simply can't trust Jim Justice. He will always put his financial interests above the needs of West Virginians.
“As Republicans have repeatedly said, Jim Justice owes millions of dollars in unpaid company taxes, after a deal with a Russian coal company,” she added. " The debts have only worsened during Justice's term as governor. If President Trump cut a deal, we hope it does not put U.S. taxpayers on the hook to bail out Jim Justice's personal finances.”
But Trump framed it as a warning sign for Democrats who oppose his agenda.
“Governor Justice did something else important tonight. He showed the country that our agenda rises above left or right,” Trump said. “It’s an agenda for all of the people, especially for the tens of millions of forgotten people.
“Countless citizens — Democrat, Republican, Independent — have been neglected and ignored by Washington, but we will make sure they are never ignored again,” Trump said.
Earlier in the day, the president teased that he had a “big announcement” planned for the rally Thursday night. It is the second visit Trump has made to the state in as many weeks. Last week he spoke at the National Scout Jamboree, delivering a speech so raucous that the chief executive of the Boy Scouts of America apologized for its political nature.
Justice made headlines by refusing to endorse Clinton during the 2016 election. But he won the election for governor as a Democrat despite Clinton's massive loss to Trump. Trump campaigned promising to bring back coal mines to states such as West Virginia.
The switch would be the first time that a Democratic governor has switched to the Republican Party since 1991, and it marks a low point for Democrats across the country, who have struggled at the state and local level. With Justice's defection, Republicans now control 34 governor's mansions and Democrats, only 15.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, said he was “disappointed” in Justice's decision to leave the party.
“While I do not agree with his decision, I have always said that I will work with anyone, no matter their political affiliation, to do what is best for the people of West Virginia,” Manchin said.
The state's other senator, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, traveled with Trump to West Virginia. And in a statement she praised Justice for taking a stand for “policies that will improve the lives of West Virginians.”
The announcement was so tightly held that even some Republicans seem to have been caught unaware.
Hours before the news broke of Justice's switch, the West Virginia GOP Twitter account was still attacking Justice.
“Low-Energy @WVGovernor Refuses To Stop Millions Of $$ In Contracts To Companies Who Cheated WV Taxpayers. Sad!” read the tweet.
In a statement after the announcement, Republican Governors Association Chairman Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, welcomed Justice to the party.
“Across the country, Republican governors are taking action, getting results, achieving meaningful reform and leading their states forward, and we’re thrilled that Governor Jim Justice wants to join our efforts,” Walker said. “On behalf of our nation’s Republican governors, we welcome Governor Justice to the RGA, and look forward to working with him to advance conservative principles and strengthen West Virginia.”
Justice noted that he had been in the Oval Office of the White House with Trump two times in the last two weeks, talking to the president about coal and manufacturing jobs.
He also dutifully denounced the investigations in Congress and by the special counsel into Russian interference into the 2016 election and possible collusion with Trump campaign associates.
“What in the world is wrong with us as people,” Justice said. “Have we not heard enough about the Russians?”
Earlier on Thursday, The Washington Post and other news outlets reported that the special counsel began using a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., several weeks ago, a sign of the seriousness of the investigation.
Amber Phillips and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.