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Guessing Justice’s 2020 opponent

Last Tuesday was a good day for Gov. Jim Justice. He learned (if he hadn’t been tipped off in advance) that U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin will not be running for governor.

Barring some political disaster, Manchin is the only Democrat with a realistic chance of beating Justice in next year’s election.

But the Democrats have to have someone on the ballot for governor. Who will they choose in the May 12 primary election?

It’s difficult to foresee anything that could overcome Justice’s ace in the hole, his personal relationship with President Donald Trump and others in the first family. West Virginians made clear in 2016 that any friend of Trump’s is their friend, too. Plus, there’s the very real factor that if West Virginia needs federal help, Justice in office is a big advantage in getting it.

What could go wrong? Widespread dissatisfaction with Justice’s campaign to repair secondary roads is a possibility, but there hasn’t been any groundswell of anger about that. A major crash in revenue fueling the state budget is another. A dip in the economy deep enough to shake voters’ confidence in Trump is a third. And there’s always the personal scandal to which all politicians hope their opponents will fall victim.

Manchin played his cards so close to the vest that it seems there were few Democrats waiting to step into the race.

One who got a head start is Stephen N. Smith, of Charleston. Formerly head of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, he insists that group’s successes were due to “old-fashioned people power.”

Never heard of him? Name recognition is one of his big disadvantages. So is the fact he’s not part of the existing Democrat establishment. Finally, many voters will view him as just too much of a big-government liberal.

But Smith has a following, to the tune of $301,035 raised for his campaign, to date. Interestingly, $69,768 of that has come from out-of-state donors. He lists $56,508 in contributions from West Virginians, with the remaining $174,759 from “unknown” locations.

Smith was out of the gate early, but he lacks the big, recognizable name among many Democratic Party voters. There just aren’t many people who meet that requirement.

One is former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who has filed pre-candidacy papers with the office of her successor, Mac Warner. Tennant, who was in that office from 2009-17, lists the office she seeks now as “undeclared.”

More than 20 of those who have filed pre-candidacy papers are undeclared, so it’s not an uncommon practice. Several notable legislators are among the number.

But they are all incumbents likely to seek re-election. Tennant isn’t. What does she have in mind? She doesn’t list much money in her campaign coffers ($4,181), so, if she plans to run for governor, she’ll need to get moving.

Could she win the Democratic nomination? Yes.

Could she beat Justice? Probably not. When she ran for re-election in 2016, Warner defeated her, 335,526-323,750 (Libertarian candidate John Buckley netted 32,179 votes). The fact she was a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton against Trump hurt her then and would again.

Playing the name game — trying to pick a likely Democratic candidate for governor — will be fun during the next several weeks. Lots of names of potentially viable candidates come to mind, but none of them sound like winners in November 2020.

Plenty of people have their complaints about Justice, but the bottom line is that, much like Trump, disliking him isn’t enough. West Virginia’s unemployment rate is low, he is doing something about roads, teachers have gotten big pay raises on his watch — and, just like Trump, he’s not a member of the political establishment.

Don’t look for Mountain State voters to change horses in the middle of the stream.

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