Reporter’s Notebook: Manchin’s revenge on Justice?

I’ve written a lot about the drama of the state and county Republican Executive Committees, but I’ve been asked about the status of the state Democratic Party.

In my life — despite what some other political writers seem to think — I have worked for both Republicans and Democrats. My first political job was 2013 working for state Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, as a constituent outreach specialist.

I’m often asked how it was to work for the state Senate Democratic majority. I enjoyed working for Kessler and consider him a dear friend. I didn’t always agree with his political stances, but I found him to be a very honest and genuine guy who presided over the Senate in a fair and nonpartisan manner.

I learned a lot in my two years working for him, but in 2014 the Republicans took the majority after Daniel Hall switched parties to break a 17-17 tie.

I bring all that up to say Kessler was ahead of his time. Kessler ran as a liberal/progressive candidate for governor in 2016. Alongside this campaign was an effort by Wheeling attorney Chris Regan to become chairman of the state Democratic Party.

The state Democratic Party has been under the control of allies of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for at least the last decade if not longer. Larry Puccio, chief of staff to Manchin when he was secretary of state and governor, served at party chairman between 2010 and 2015.

Puccio resigned after the Republicans took over the legislature. He later went on to be a senior advisor for a Democratic candidate named Jim Justice. It’s largely understood both Puccio and Manchin recruited Justice to run, knowing his similarities to Donald Trump would make him a shoo-in. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

Puccio was replaced by another Manchin ally, Belinda Biafore. But going into the 2016 elections her vice chairman was Regan, who I’d put in the Kessler camp. Both Biafore and Regan ended up facing off for the party chairman position in 2016. Regan lost. The liberal/progressive caucus within the party thought it was more important to add an anti-fracking clause to the state Democratic Party platform instead of making sure he had the votes to win.

Instead, the Manchin wing rallied behind Biafore and she won. That same Manchin wing made sure that Justice won. Puccio ran Justice’s transition team. Nick Casey, Justice’s campaign treasurer and a former state party chairman himself, became Justice’s chief of staff. Justice took office in January 2017.

Eight months later, Justice switched to Republican, fired Casey, gave Gayle Manchin – wife to U.S. Sen. Manchin and former secretary of the Department of Education and the Arts – the boot, and has largely been a thorn in Manchin’s side and reportedly one of the worst decisions Manchin has ever made.

That brings us back to the present. As I said, Kessler was four years ahead of his time. I’d argue that the volunteers and activists within the state Democratic Party are more left-leaning than ever before. That’s in keeping with what’s going on with the Democratic Party on the national level.

Democrats took the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018. At the statehouse level Democrats had few victories, but the people who did take office in the state Senate and House of Delegates are arguably more progressive. Stephen Smith, the former leader of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, raised $148,290 in a three-month period – more than all the other candidates for governor combined.

However, I think — much like 2016 — the more moderate-to-conservative wing of the state Democratic Party will continue to ultimately lead. As much as progressives hate to hear this, West Virginia is Trump Country. The people voting for Trump are primarily registered Democrat. Democrats still maintain a clear majority of registered voters with 40.78 percent as of June 30.

Justice clearly has the backing of Trump. It was Trump who coaxed Justice to switch parties. I think Justice expected legislative Democrats to do whatever he wanted during the 2017 session and when they didn’t, that gave Justice another reason to switch. Justice has Trump campaign staffers advising and running his campaign.

It’s going to take a heavy hitter to take Justice on, assuming he makes it through a Republican primary. I think he could.

The Democrats need someone, but their bench is empty and the one candidate with money is considered far too progressive. Ask former house candidate Lissa Lucas of Ritchie County how a well-funded progressive can do. She lost with just over a quarter of the votes cast, but raised $93,257.

The Democrats do have someone who has taken on a Trump-backed candidate. The president traveled to West Virginia three times to campaign for Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 2018. Trump weighed into the race on social media and sent Donald Trump, Jr. here.

Manchin beat Morrisey 50 percent to 46 percent, even with Trump putting his finger on the scales. It was admittedly one of Manchin’s worst election performances, but he squeaked out the win.

I’ve said previously that I didn’t think Manchin would jump in the governor’s race. He has a lot of pressure from Democrats in the U.S. Senate to stay put. I said he would only jump in if there was no other choice. I think the chances today if him entering the race are more likely. I think he feels responsible for unleashing Justice on the state.

If Justice is one of Manchin’s worst mistakes, it would not surprise me to see Manchin jump in to rectify that mistake.

Next week I’ll try to handicap the other seats on the Board of Public Works.

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