In governor’s race, Cole misses straight-ticket tie to Trump

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s Republican candidate for governor admits he didn’t help himself by ending straight-ticket voting, which could have let him ride Donald Trump’s coattails into office in a state where the GOP presidential nominee remains popular.

As the state Senate’s new president two years ago, following eight decades of Democratic control, Bill Cole made the bill to end straight-ticket voting a priority.

“I’m not going to lie to you: I wish I had waited two years, because I think a straight ticket with Donald Trump at the top, and his continued high popularity in this state, might have made my life a lot easier,” Cole said. “But it was the right thing to do.”

Under the straight-ticket system, voters could pull one lever to choose the party’s candidate on top and automatically select all the other party nominees, straight down the line.

“It truly was the incumbent protection plan,” Cole said.

But here in Trump country, where Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is widely viewed as a threat to the struggling coal industry, straight-ticket voters could have been GOP gold.

Ten other states still offer straight-ticket voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Michigan, where the legislature’s decision to abolish it has been held back by a court challenge.

As Senate president, Cole helped engineer other major changes in West Virginia: limiting abortions and court damage claims, ending union closed shops, eliminating mandatory concealed pistol permit requirements and overturning a plan to force power plants to begin using alternative fuels.

But instead of coasting back into Senate leadership, Cole faces a challenger: well-known businessman Jim Justice, who last year declared himself a Democrat for his first run at state office. The owner of coal mines, farms and the Greenbrier resort, Justice, 65, has the backing of the United Mine Workers of America and the West Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association. He has spent $2.6 million of his own money on the race.

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce supports Cole. He has also loaned at least $500,000 to his campaign and paid other in-kind expenses. The governor’s salary is $150,000 a year.

Cole, the 60-year-old owner of three car dealerships that employ some 400 people, saw the mandatory exit of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin after two terms as an opportunity to also remove administrative regulation and further support the free market.

He said that’s critical to West Virginia’s economic comeback from the decline in coal mining.

Cole wants to remove the state’s severance tax, to help the timber business, and he sees room to grow agriculture.