West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice handed President Donald Trump a big PR boost this summer when he jumped from the Democrats to the Republicans. But now Justice won’t commit to supporting his new party’s eventual nominee in his state’s closely watched upcoming Senate race.
Justice declined to make such a pledge when asked for one during a party gathering Monday night in Charleston, two Republicans who were in the room told BuzzFeed News.
“He said positive things about the Republicans who were running,” West Virginia GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas said. But Justice also noted his “long-standing friendship” with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, whom many national Republicans would love to unseat.
Lucas and another source who attended the meeting of about 80 party leaders and activists said Justice indicated he would follow Trump’s lead with regard to the Senate race.
“His answer may as well have been, ‘Fuck you, no,’” the second source said.
Lucas said he was more optimistic: “I’m confident that the governor will support the Republican nominee after our primary and as things get closer to the election to 2018.”
A spokesperson for Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The governor’s position reflects a new political calculation for Republicans nationally: Are they loyal to Trump or to their party? These days the two often are not in sync with each other.
Manchin is one of 10 Democrats up for reelection next year in a state won by Trump — and Trump won West Virginia by a massive 42-point margin. Perhaps the most conservative Democrat in Congress, Manchin endorsed Justice’s gubernatorial bid last year, when Justice ran as a Democrat. And Manchin, who visited the White House for dinner last Tuesday to talk over tax reform, has a cordial relationship with the president.
Trump has frustrated Republicans with his overtures to Democrats. In North Dakota, he praised Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who like Manchin faces a tough 2018 reelection fight. He has also lately seemed to relish cutting deals with the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. "At the same time, the president has departed from party orthodoxy on issues like trade and has encouraged primary challengers to at least one Republican critic: Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.
The West Virginia race is critical for a GOP fighting to gain a slightly more comfortable majority in the Senate, or even just keep control. Republicans there are bracing for an unusually competitive primary to determine Manchin’s challenger. Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey are considered the leading contenders in the GOP primary. Also in the race is Bo Copley, an unemployed coal miner who at a campaign event last year challenged Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on her vow to put coal miners and coal companies “out of business.”
A poll last month by MetroNews West Virginia found Manchin with a slightly higher job-approval rating than Trump: 51% approval for the senator, 48% approval for the president.
Justice’s approval rating sat at 34%.
The governor announced his jump to the GOP last month during a campaign-style rally with Trump in Huntington, West Virginia. It wasn’t the first time he flipped his affiliation — Justice had been a registered Republican before running for governor last year as a Democrat. His latest switch fueled suspicions among leaders in both parties about his motives.
“Monday night was a meeting that was a great step for the governor in terms of developing relationships with Republican activists,” said Lucas, the state GOP chairman. “He was very up-front with his commitment to pro-life issues and Second Amendment issues. He said he recently received a copy of the Republican state platform and would be reviewing it.
“There’s a cautious optimism.”