Some thoughts after the primary election
We made it through the extended primary and there is a lot to unpack on how it affects November.
One thing for sure: thanks goes to the staff of the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, employees of the 55 county clerks and the poll workers who helped create a smooth election.
Google Georgia and Pennsylvania and you’ll hear horror stories. In Georgia, they had massive problems with voting machines causing long lines and headaches. In Pennsylvania, they still haven’t counted all the absentee ballots after their elections last week.
In West Virginia, we got an early start in March by allowing the coronavirus to be used as an excuse to request an absentee ballot. Applications were mailed to all registered voters. The primary date was moved to June. County clerks stocked up early on personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, as well as staffing up to handle the influx of absentee ballots.
I have a feeling going forward West Virginia will be the model on how to correctly handle elections during an emergency.
OK, time for some meat and potatoes. Let’s start with the governor’s race. It was easy to see in the last 30 days Justice was not only going to win, but win large. I’ve never believed Justice is as unpopular among average people as his enemies like to paint him.
No doubt having his briefings streamed and sometimes taken live by TV and radio stations the last two months or more helped him. But I think it was a combination of that along with the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that helped put him over the top. One can quibble with minor issues, but the big picture shows Justice has handled the crisis well.
Woody Thrasher tried his best, but couldn’t overcome that. He loaned his campaign $3.5 million and spent just short of $4 million. The Thrasher campaign pointed to its own internal polling that had him closer to a win. They flooded the state with TV and radio ads, as well as mailers.
Woody is a nice guy and no doubt would have done a good job. However, there were several missteps. First, he should have stayed a Democrat. I think he would be the Democratic candidate for governor now if he went down that path. Justice had already flipped parties, so having two party switchers was probably two too many.
Second, it always seemed like he was running to get payback. He was likely embarrassed when Justice called for his resignation as his Commerce Department secretary after being made the scapegoat for the early fumbling of the RISE West Virginia and a program that allowed CEOs to help with Department of Commerce projects. No doubt mistakes were made under Thrasher’s watch, though Justice is culpable for his own mistakes, too.
In six months’ time, from December 2017 to June 2018, Thrasher went from the toast of the state for negotiating the multi-billion-dollar China Energy deal to being forced from his department and blamed for its failures.
I think many of us saw Thrasher as a possible Democratic candidate for governor back then and Justice kneecapped Thrasher early. So, instead of running as a Democrat, Thrasher decided to challenge Justice toe-to-toe in Justice’s own primary. Not only was Thrasher out to get even, but many of the people in Thrasher’s orbit had their own beefs with people in the Justice administration.
A Klingon proverb says revenge is a dish best served cold. You can’t run angry. You’ve got to run for something, not solely against the man you’re seeking to beat. Especially a man whose negatives — doesn’t live in Charleston, uses state aircraft to fly to his Lewisburg home, doesn’t pay his vendors, has dozens of federal court cases, etc. — don’t really play with the voting public. They see Justice as Trump-like.
The Democrats are already trying to paint Justice’s primary win as a sign the Republican Party is weak.
“After the sitting governor was rejected by one-third of his fellow Republicans and his closest political allies were defeated, this week’s primary exposed the fact Justice isn’t able to run on his record and has a lot of work to do to shore up support within his own party,” said Grant Herring, Justice’s former campaign spokesperson in 2016. Herring is now the campaign manager for Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, who won the Democratic primary for governor last week.
A couple of things to point out that should give Democrats pause for November. First, there were more votes cast in the Republican primary for governor (208,169) than the Democratic primary for governor (186,254). Justice himself received 131,131 votes in his seven-way primary, while Salango received 72,364 votes out of a total of five candidates.
Second, of the 10 Republican incumbents who lost primaries, keep in mind they lost those primaries to 10 other Republicans. While no Democratic incumbents lost, there were 15 seats in the Legislature that Democrats didn’t even try to challenge — three seats in the Senate and 12 seats in the House. The Senate will have a couple of competitive elections in November, but the House isn’t likely to see a flip.
Third, the Republican Party is just 4 points away from tying the Democratic Party in voter registration. By last count, 38.63 percent of the state’s 1.2 million registered voters were registered Democrat while 34.57 percent were registered Republican. The number of registered Democrats has consistently shrunk across the decade, while Republican and unaffiliated voter numbers have increased. That trend is likely to continue.
Lastly, even with his many fumbles, bumbles and tumbles, President Donald Trump remains popular in West Virginia. Even though West Virginia is not a battleground state, expect Trump to come to West Virginia anyway to stump for Justice and soak up the state’s love.
I’m just saying, it’s a long way to November and I wouldn’t start popping any champagne corks in the state Democratic Party headquarters just yet.
(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at email@example.com)