Jim Justice elected as West Virginia’s next governor

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.

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.

Cole tried to lump Justice in with national Democrats, particularly Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, whose climate change policies have targeted coal-fired power plants. Cole pointed to donations that Justice and his family made in 2011 to the Democratic National Committee. Justice’s campaign said those checks were intended to support former Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.

Justice has said he’s “terribly disappointed” with both presidential candidates and would leave that part of his ballot blank.

Still, some voters drew a link between Justice and Clinton.

Sarah Bostic said her and her husband, both Republicans who voted for Cole, were “definitely been impacted by a lot of the ads, talking about how Jim Justice stands with Hillary Clinton. And that’s not something we want to encourage.”

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.