The oddity of the West Virginia governor switching parties

Campaign signs are seen before a rally for Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump in Charleston, W. Va., on May 5, 2016. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)
Campaign signs are seen before a rally for Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump in Charleston, W. Va., on May 5, 2016.

Donald Trump, returning to West Virginia last night for the second time in a week, teased yesterday afternoon that the rally he was holding for himself would feature some kind of surprise. As it turned out, the surprise had nothing to do with the White House and everything to do with the governor's office.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice appeared with Trump and announced he's becoming a Republican.

"Today, I will tell you, with lots of prayers and lots of thinking, I can't help you anymore being a Democrat governor," Justice said. "So tomorrow, I will be changing my registration to Republican."

To be more specific, it's probably better to say Justice is changing his registration back to Republican. Justice was a registered GOP voter as recently as 2015, at which point he became a Democrat, took full advantage of Democratic resources to run successfully for governor in 2016, only to go back to being a Republican in 2017.

At a distance, this probably doesn't surprise anyone. After all, even before yesterday, Justice was a conservative red-state billionaire who became wealthy as a coal magnate. It's not exactly a c.v. that screams "Democratic mainstream."

That said, major statewide officeholders don't change parties often -- Justice is the first sitting governor to switch since Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee became a Democrat in 2013 -- so anytime it happens, switches like these are worth examining.

The closer one looks, however, the harder it is to make sense of Justice's decision.

One might say that West Virginia was one of Trump's strongest states, so it stands to reason the state's governor would want to be part of Trump's political party. But Justice was on the same 2016 ballot as Trump last year, and it didn't stop him from winning as as a Democrat fairly easily, overcoming GOP attacks. It'll be more three years until he runs for re-election, so there was no real electoral motivation for yesterday's move, at least not in the short term.

One might also suggest Justice was simply aligning himself with the policymakers with whom he agreed ideologically, but that's not true in this case, either. Justice staunchly opposed congressional Republican efforts to pass "Trumpcare," which would've had a brutal impact on West Virginia, and in recent months, he's repeatedly clashed with the state's GOP-led state legislature.

Indeed, the West Virginia Republican Party was attacking Justice as recently as yesterday morning.

Maybe, one might argue, this was about creating some kind of bank-shot in which Trump named Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to his cabinet, allowing West Virginia's newly Republican governor to appoint a Republican to Manchin's Senate seat. That might make sense, except Manchin has already ruled this out, and the party switch actually makes this less likely, not more: if the goal was to replace Manchin with a more far-right replacement, Justice should've waited to change parties instead of doing it now.

I realize that there's no great mystery surrounding a conservative billionaire joining the GOP, but as a matter of political strategy, Justice didn't really have to bother.