HUNTINGTON, W. Va. — While it is highly unusual for a sitting governor to change political parties while in office — as West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (D) announced he would do during a rally with President Trump on Thursday night — the process of crossing over was familiar to many in the crowd that night.
Kimberly Barrington, a 46-year-old stay-at-home mother of two from Virginia’s rural Wise County, voted for Democrats for years, including former president Barack Obama ahead of his first term — but as she watched him and the Democratic Party drift away from her values and priorities, she decided to vote in 2012 for Republican nominee Mitt Romney and then for Trump in 2016.
Marty Ramsey, a 49-year-old from Kenova who maintains trains, became an independent several years ago after watching Democrats allow the government to become heavily involved in health care, implement Common Core education standards that he thinks are too liberal, reduce access to firearms and narrow the freedoms of Americans. After not voting in the 2008 and 2012 elections, Ramsey voted for Trump last year.
Paula Langston, a 41-year-old registered nurse who grew up here and has always voted for Republicans, said she was stunned when her parents — staunch, lifelong Democrats — announced that they were voting for Trump. They own a bar in town and realized that voting for Democrats again and again wasn’t helping them, so they decided to take a chance on Trump, she said. She’s not sure whether this was a one-time gamble or a full change of heart.
“It will depend on how he does,” she said, “if they see the impact on their lives that he has promised.”
Trump’s core base of support includes a substantial number of Democrats and former Democrats, along with people who hadn’t been motivated to vote in years, and a key to his electoral victory was winning dozens of rural, industrial counties in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio that previously voted for Obama. Republican and Democratic strategists have been carefully studying this group, trying to determine whether the transition is a permanent one.
Many of those interviewed Thursday evening said they aren’t sure how to describe themselves politically or how they might change in the future, but that their decision will be tied to the candidates they are offered. Here on the western edge of West Virginia, where Appalachia fades into the Rust Belt, both Democrats and Republicans said they are concerned about the economy, access to affordable health care and the rampant heroin epidemic, as West Virginia has the highest overdose death rate in the country. Trump supporters added that they are worried about terrorist attacks, violent immigrants who enter the country illegally and the decreasing influence of Christianity.
This is the fifth presidential election in which the Republican presidential nominee has won West Virginia, and Trump truly swept the state, winning all 55 counties — 43 of which he won with at least 70 percent of the vote. But many Trump supporters aren’t traditional Republicans and their stances on various issues don’t perfectly match the party’s stances, making it difficult for state elected leaders to figure out what to do.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) is one of a few Democrats who is up for reelection in a state that overwhelmingly voted for Trump, and he has tried to foster a relationship with the president, do interviews with conservative news outlets like Breitbart and break with his party to vote for some of Trump’s Cabinet nominees. Meanwhile, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.) originally opposed the Senate health-care bill because she said the deep cuts to Medicaid would hurt her state’s residents, especially those fighting opioid addiction, although she eventually voted for the “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act, which failed even with her support.
Some Democrats have tried to paint Trump’s victory as a fluke, arguing that they haven’t really lost the support of white, working-class voters and that with the right candidate with the right message in the next election, the trend will reverse. But Justice’s decision to jump ship — or, rather, return to being the Republican that he once was before he ran for governor as a Democrat — could be an indication of just how difficult it could be for Democrats to regain trust in the Rust Belt and coal country.
Justice’s announcement stunned both those inside the Big Sandy Superstore Arena for Trump’s rally Thursday night — and the liberal protesters gathered outside, some of whom had once voted or campaigned for him. At one point, the protesters angrily chanted: “Jim Justice is a traitor! Jim Justice is a traitor!”
“It’s disgraceful,” said protester Peyton Johnson, 20, a sophomore biology major at nearby Marshall University who grew up in West Virginia’s Lincoln County and is the first in her family to go to college, thanks to government assistance like Pell Grants. “He gets into office on the Democratic values and then switches as soon as he gets in?”
“If he changes the way he acts, it will be okay,” said Andrew Langston, 45, a Trump supporter and longtime Republican who voted for Justice’s Republican opponent, state Senate President Bill Cole. “I don't care if he’s a Democrat or a Republican — but you can’t just change your name and keep doing the same thing and think that everything has changed.”
“That was incredible — it took a lot of guts to do that,” said Dave Jones, 59, who voted for Justice and Trump because he liked that neither had ever held elected office and both were willing to break with the established way of doing things. He added that he also supports Manchin, the Democratic senator.
“I think it’s a sign of the times,” said Jose Gonzalez, a 37-year-old project manager at a local steel plant and former Democrat who lives across the river in Kentucky and voted for Trump after his first pick for president, Bernie Sanders, lost the Democratic primary. “On paper, I had to register as a Republican. But I have to say, I’m somewhere in the middle ... The Democratic Party used to look out for the downtrodden, but more and more working people are going for Republicans.”
Justice’s big announcement came at a point in the rally when mayhem was breaking out in the crowd, exposing the division caused by Trump’s presidency even in a state where he won by such a wide margin. Several protesters seated high in the stands behind Trump had unfurled banners and were being confronted by those sitting around them and then kicked out of the arena by security.
There were enthusiastic cheers in the arena as Trump called Justice to the stage, addressing him as “my good friend” and telling the crowd that Justice had a major announcement to make. The New York Times had reported earlier that afternoon that Justice was changing political parties, and many in the crowd seemed to know what the announcement would be. As Justice took the stage, the crowd chanted: “Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!” The crowd kept cheering as Justice began speaking and told them that he had been to the Oval Office twice in the last two or three weeks to share his ideas for reviving the coal and manufacturing industries.
Justice is a billionaire coal-mining baron and owner of the famed Greenbrier resort and golf course in White Sulphur Springs, and he has known Trump and his family for years, even going hunting with Donald Trump Jr. While Trump was once a Democrat and switched to becoming a Republican, Justice was once a Republican and switched to being a Democrat, only to switch back this week. Like Trump, Justice campaigned on the promise of reviving the state’s struggling coal industry, and one of his campaign ads ended with a voice saying, “We need a coal man running this state.” Justice also has a trail of millions of dollars of unpaid fines to federal coal regulators, unpaid bills to suppliers and unpaid taxes to state and local governments throughout Appalachia.
As Justice spoke, a scuffle broke out high in the stands behind him. Trump supporters ripped away a Mexican flag from a protester and threw it off the side of the risers. Meanwhile, security was escorting a number of protesters out of the arena, including one with a banner that read: “Love trumps hate.” Trump supporters nearby began to boo, likely at the protesters, although Justice seemed to act as if the disapproval was directed at him and hastened to get to his big announcement.
“Now, I can tell you, if you’ll just give me just a moment,” Justice said, at one point, clasping and unclasping his hands as he seemed to try to assess the restless crowd. “This man and myself are not politicians. We ran to get something done. We ran and gave up part of our lives. We ran because we want nothing. We ran as our Founding Fathers did years and years ago — to serve.”
The scuffle up in the stands had turned into an all-out brawl and it appeared that one person had another person in a headlock. Many in the arena looked up to see what was happening, even though Justice was about to drop his big news. As security broke up the fight, the crowd cheered, which came mid-sentence for Justice, who wasn’t expecting any applause at just that moment. Finally he looked over his shoulder and figured out what had captured everyone’s attention.
“Let me just say this to you as bluntly as I can say it,” Justice said, continuing to speak despite the drama behind him. “West Virginia, at the altar, when we had it done, like it or not like it, but the Democrats walked away from me. Today I will tell you that with lots of prayers and lots of thinking, today I tell you as West Virginians, I can’t help you any more being a Democrat governor.”
Suddenly, Justice got screams of approval that seemed actually aimed at him.
“So tomorrow,” he continued, “I will be changing my registration to Republican.”
The crowd screamed and thrust their campaign signs into the air. One guy flashed a double thumbs-up as a woman victoriously pumped her fist in the air. A woman screamed: “We love you, Trump!”