Democrats Face Crowded Primary in...West Virginia

Political disaster at the polls in 2014 didn't keep three credible Democrats from entering the open race for governor.

Billionaire businessman Jim Justice announces that he is running for governor of West Virginia as a Democrat in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., on May 11. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley)

West Virginia continued its rightward turn in 2014 when Republicans swept all three House seats, picked up an open Senate seat, and won control of both chambers of the state legislature. But Democrats aren’t ready to throw in the towel just yet, with three credible candidates running in this year’s race for governor.

Former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin effectively joined the Democratic primary Monday by filing pre-candidacy papers to start raising money. He faces wealthy businessman Jim Justice, a former Republican, and state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler for the Democratic nomination in the race to succeed outgoing Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat who is term limited.

West Virginia is one of the GOP’s best opportunities to add another governor to its ranks in 2016, and Republicans coalesced early around their likely nominee, state Senate President Bill Cole. But Republicans have only held the governorship there for four of the last 27 years, and the unexpectedly crowded Democratic primary is a reflection that state races still offer a glimmer of hope for Democrats in states where the party struggles federally.

That’s thanks to the different sets of issues on which voters pick their governors compared to senators or presidents, but it’s also due in part to candidates’ abilities to distinguish themselves from the political fault lines that define federal elections. Democrat John Bel Edwards’s victory in Louisiana in November over a Republican senator offered further evidence of that.

In that light, West Virginia Democrats see their competitive primary as a positive thing, but Republicans beg to differ.

“I don’t feel that the Democrat primary is going to impact the ultimate result in November because I’m confident that Republican Bill Cole will be the next governor of West Virginia,” state GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas said. “We see the Democrat Party in complete disarray as it’s become highly factionalized as they’ve lost their stronghold on the state.”

Regarding those factions, Goodwin’s entrance injects into the race remnants of an old intraparty rivalry. Jim Justice has close ties to Sen. Joe Manchin. The Goodwin family, on the other hand, can boast close relationships with former Sen. Jay Rockefeller, as well as former Govs. Bob Wise and Gaston Caperton.

A team of former top Manchin advisers and consultants are working for Justice’s campaign, and Manchin effusively praised Justice when he joined the race, though he stopped short of endorsing him.

The rivalry between the two camps isn’t particularly ideological. Instead, it’s often described as more of a friendly split between different tribes. Kessler, meanwhile, is perceived to be the most liberal, progressive candidate in the primary.

“For the Goodwin campaign, it’s a question of how to win a primary in a race in which Jim Justice has staked out the business conservative Democratic side and Jeff Kessler has fairly consistently been running to the left,” said local Democratic strategist Mike Plante, who isn’t  involved in the primary. “And so he’s got a challenge of how he defines himself other than as a successful prosecutor.”

Goodwin comes from a family with long and strong ties to West Virginia politics. He’s the cousin of former Sen. Carte Goodwin, who was appointed to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Robert Byrd in 2010.

Goodwin recently finished prosecuting a high-profile case against former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who was criticized for the deaths of 29 coal miners after an ex­plo­sion at the Up­per Big Branch mine in 2010. Massey was ultimately found guilty of just one misdemeanor charge that he conspired to violate federal mine safety standards, and Blankenship plans to appeal that decision. Goodwin stepped down from his po­s­i­tion as U.S. At­tor­ney last week after months of spec­u­la­tion about a pro­spect­ive cam­paign.

More so than alliances, the biggest factor in the Democratic primary is bound to be money. Justice is the wealthiest person in the state with a net worth estimated to be near $1.65 billion. Justice made his money through a vast network of business and coal-mining enterprises, and he owns the historic Greenbrier resort, which hosts an annual PGA tournament and the New Orleans Saints' training camp.

Meanwhile, Justice’s early entry allowed him to beat his rivals to the airwaves in October with a positive TV-ad blitz, and the unlimited personal resources he could spend on his bid will be a significant obstacle for Goodwin and Kessler. Justice also snagged a coveted endorsement last month from the United Mine Workers.

“You can have the best profile and the best message in the world, but if you don’t have the resources to get it out, you have an uphill challenge ahead of you,” Plante said.

Justice’s early spending may already be paying off. The Justice campaign released Tuesday an internal poll conducted Dec. 1-3 by Global Strategy Group, which showed Justice in the lead with 39 percent, followed by Kessler with 19 percent, and Goodwin trailing at 13 percent.

In a radio interview Tuesday morning with West Virginia MetroNews, Justice pollster Jefrey Pollock of Global Strategy Group said, “There’s no question those ads have moved the needle.” Pollock exuded confidence about Goodwin’s addition to the race, saying simply, “The more the merrier.”

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face a tough race in November. Even with his vast personal wealth, one national Republican operative recently described Justice as “an opposition-researcher’s dream” thanks to his business record in the coal industry. And Republicans plan to tie the eventual nominee, whoever that is, to President Obama.

“All three candidates on the Democrat side have supported Barack Obama, with Jim Justice having been a donor, Jeff Kessler having proudly proclaimed himself as an Obama Democrat, and Booth Goodwin having been an attorney for the Obama administration,” Lucas said. “And if there’s anything West Virginians do not approve of, it’s the president, and certainly those with ties to him will not fare well here next November.”

Justice has donated to the Democratic National Committee, not Obama, and the money was earmarked for a gubernatorial race in Kentucky. But that likely won't stop Republicans from connecting the two anyway.

CORRECTION: This article originally stated Don Blankenship was "held responsible for" the deaths from the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion. Blankenship faced public criticism for his management of the mine leading up to the incident, but was acquitted of all felony charges relating to the circumstances surrounding the explosion.