Jim Justice beats Bill Cole in West Virginia governor’s race
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Billionaire businessman Jim Justice will become West Virginia’s next governor, a critical split-ticket win for Democrats in a state where Republican Donald Trump cruised to victory.
Justice, a coal and agriculture magnate, defeated Republican state Senate President Bill Cole on Tuesday to keep the office in Democratic control. Despite the historically Democratic state’s quick shift to Republican, the GOP now has gone two decades without winning the West Virginia governor’s race. Justice will replace Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who has reached his two-consecutive-term limit.
“I’ll work as tirelessly as I possibly can,” Justice, 65, told a cheering crowd of about 400 in a ballroom at the Greenbrier Resort that he owns in White Sulphur Springs. Billed as a celebration, it was scheduled weeks in advance in a race where polls showed him leading. He said the campaign was stressful. “Today is the first day of real healing in West Virginia.”
He called for unity among people and political parties to advance a state he called both beautiful and abundant in resources — coal, oil, natural gas and timber and within 600 miles of two-thirds of America’s population. He joked that the grouse were celebrating because he won’t be hunting as much.
“There are so many opportunities for jobs, jobs and more jobs,” Justice said. West Virginia in recent years has suffered job losses and state budget shortfalls with a sharp downturn in coal mining.
“We cannot possibly cut our way out of this mess,” Justice said, repeating a frequent campaign theme. “And you can’t tax our people more than they have today. We have got to grow our way out of this mess.”
In his concession speech, Cole said he called Justice to congratulate him. He thanked his supporters and touted legislative accomplishments as Senate president.
“I end this race with a new appreciation for our state,” Cole said. “I can tell you the strength of our state rests with her people.
“Even though we came up a little bit short tonight, the issues we fought for should not, will not and cannot be given up or forgotten.”
Justice, West Virginia’s wealthiest resident and formerly a Republican, has generally spoken about his ability to find outside-the-box answers to bring jobs to the struggling coal-dependent state.
He pointed to his purchase and turnaround of the once-broke Greenbrier resort, a longtime playground in West Virginia for members of Congress and foreign dignitaries.
“I think Jim Justice is a good man,” said Connie Poveromo, a Democratic voter from Madison who voted for Justice. “I think he cares about West Virginia. I believe he’ll be very good at the job.”
Cole, a car dealer, introduced Trump at a rally in Charleston in May and replayed that video on loop in TV ads. Trump has maintained his appeal in Appalachia by promising to bring back coal jobs, contrary to grim economic forecasts for the industry.
Both candidates said they weren’t giving up on the coal industry.
The 2014 election put Cole in charge of the Senate in a Legislature that flipped to Republican control for the first time in more than eight decades. Cole called for downsizing state government and cutting regulations.
Cole also praised the passage of anti-union right-to-work legislation and the repeal of prevailing wage mandates for public construction projects under his leadership.
Justice opposed both changes as anti-worker. He also pushed for large economic development projects, wondering out loud why West Virginia couldn’t build the next Dollywood or Disney resort.
The last Republican to take the governor’s mansion was Cecil Underwood, who won in 1996.
Associated Press writer John Raby in Charleston contributed to this report. Virtanen reported from White Sulphur Springs.