The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

West Virginia’s governor is switching parties. And Democrats just hit a new low.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice joined President Trump at a rally in Huntington, W.Va., Aug. 3, to announce that he is registering as a Republican. (Video: The Washington Post)

In November, Republicans solidified and/or expanded their majorities at all levels of governance, and it looked as if things couldn't get worse for Democrats. Except, it just did.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced Thursday he is leaving the Democratic Party, just six months after taking office, and becoming a Republican. An extra twist of the knife for Democrats: He did it alongside President Trump, at a rally in West Virginia.

“Like it or not, but the Democrats walked away from me,” he told Trump supporters. " ... West Virginia, I can't help you anymore by being a Democratic governor.”

It's not immediately clear why Justice is doing an about-face. But the fact he is underscores just how fragile Democrats' hold on power is. With one politician's decision to switch parties, Democrats now hold a record-low number of governorships — and Republicans hold a record high.

Justice will be the 34th Republican governor, tying an all-time high for the party. Republicans now control both the governor's mansions and state legislatures in 26 states. Democrats have total control in just six states. (In 2018, they'll have a chance to pick up governorships, with Republicans defending 27 of 38 seats, many in blue or purple states.)

Party switches, especially at the gubernatorial level, don't happen very often. Justice is the first governor to switch from Democrat to Republican in 2½ decades. And it's not clear he did it because of broader partisan dynamics.

This appears to be more of a personal decision. Justice didn't give his now-former party or his new party a heads up. He didn't call the Democratic Governors Association, which spent $1.5 million to help Justice win election, and sources say even some of his staff was caught off guard.

The DGA accused the billionaire, who owes millions in taxes and fines, of switching parties to enrich himself.

If one Democrat were to switch parties right now, Justice is probably the Democrat you'd guess. He is a former Republican. He was the first, and one of the only, big-name Democrats to say he wouldn't be voting for Hillary Clinton. It ended up being a smart call. Trump won Justice's state by more than 40 points, and Justice outperformed Clinton by more than that to win his election. Justice has been close to Trump's children, especially Eric Trump, for some time. Just last week, Justice rode in a limo with Trump as the president was in the state to talk to Boy Scouts.

In other words, Justice's departure doesn't mean Democrats are fleeing their party because they finally saw the light and decided to become Republican. In fact, maybe it's the opposite, said Carolyn Fiddler, a state-politics analyst with the left-leaning blog Daily Kos.

“I'm surprised he'd opt to align himself with a party with such a damaged brand right now,” she said. Trump has historically low approval ratings, and Republicans in Congress just tried to pass an Obamacare repeal, but all they accomplished was to make Obamacare more popular.

It's not immediately clear Republicans in West Virginia want him. They derided the eccentric billionaire during the campaign for not being good with finances.

“The people of West Virginia deserve better,” state Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R) said of the governor recently during a budget debate. “I don’t believe anybody who owes this state $4.5 million in unpaid taxes is in a position to tell a legislative body that has responsibly managed its own budget for decades . . . how to spend a single penny.”

In terms of West Virginia policy, Justice's decision won't change much immediately. Republicans control the state legislature, and they could have just vetoed Justice anyway. (West Virginia is one of several states that requires a simple majority to override a governor's veto.) “It's not as though Jim Justice was holding back a tide of conservative legislation as a Democratic governor,” Fiddler said.

But he may have a lasting impact on West Virginia politics. Republicans have long said that if they can turn West Virginia's governor's mansion red, they could keep it Republican for decades.

Barack Obama lost the state by double digits twice, and all but one member of West Virginia's five-person congressional delegation are Republicans. (And that lone Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin, is up for reelection in 2018 is one of Democrats' most vulnerable.) The state legislature has been entirely controlled by Republicans since 2014. Neighboring Kentucky is seeing the same dynamics: In November, Republicans took control of the last state legislative chamber in the South, the Kentucky statehouse.

As we wrote back then, Democrats are basically extinct in the South. Justice may have just solidified that a little farther north, in West Virginia.