Opening round in Manchin, Justice political matchup?

Never discount the power of personal animosity in politics.

Take U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Gov. Jim Justice. Just a few years ago, they seemed to be friends. Manchin got credit for helping Justice, then a Democrat, win the governor’s race in 2016. It escaped no one’s notice that Larry Puccio, who had worked in Manchin’s administration when he was governor and has been a political aide, went to work for Justice (and was paid more than $11,000 for consulting).

Justice won the election handily, topping his nearest competitor, Republican state Senate President Bill Cole, by nearly 50,000 votes.

Then, not long after taking office, Justice jumped ship. He switched to the Republican Party. No doubt that didn’t help his standing with Manchin.

Now, it’s personal.

Justice has a habit of blaming others for the state’s problems. Earlier this month, in unveiling his plan to repair secondary roads, he took a shot at Manchin.

“When I walked in the door here, your secondary roads were falling all to pieces,” Justice said. “We absolutely sold equipment that could have been doing maintenance in the counties. We starved our crews and everything.”

Well, who did that? Not Justice’s immediate predecessor, Earl Ray Tomblin, who spent much of his tenure coping with near-crisis financial woes.

The blame, Justice insists, lies with Manchin’s time as governor from early 2005 through mid-2010. “Back in the Manchin administration, we disarmed ourselves and we didn’t have any money when Earl Ray was at the helm,” Justice said Wednesday. “We have created the all-time mother lode of a dog’s mess.”

Justice continued in the same vein the next day, as a guest on the MetroNews “Talkline” show.

Manchin was on the air there the same day. He wasn’t happy: “Jim’s been governor for two years. Why, all of a sudden, does he want to blame everybody?” As far as selling off DOH equipment, Manchin said that during his administration, only one machine, a Gradall excavator, was sold, and that was to obtain three backhoes.

“Whatever we did, our roads were in much better shape,” Manchin said. “Let’s put it that way.”

And, he got personal. “He just won’t work,” Manchin said of the governor. “Doesn’t show up. You can’t run the state from The Greenbrier.”

Perhaps this is just the first exchange of fire. Justice plans to run for re-election next year. There has been talk that Manchin would like to leave the Washington rat race and come back to serve again as governor.

How would that shake out? Justice’s advantage in 2016 was that he could portray himself as a political outsider. It didn’t hurt that he’s a friend of President Donald Trump, who’s wildly popular in West Virginia.

But now, Justice is an insider. And people remember Manchin as governor with fondness. Yes, the roads were in better shape. And Manchin had the good sense to use much of the big budget surpluses during his term to pay down debt.

Would a Manchin-Justice race next year be a replay of the race between Manchin and Republican Attorney General Morrisey last year? In that, Morrisey enjoyed some success by portraying himself as a supporter of Trump. He still lost to Manchin, by more than 3 points.

And here’s the thing: Justice is on the defensive now, in large measure because of those roads. And among state legislators, who influence much of the machinery of county-level grassroots politics, Justice has made quite a few enemies — in both parties.

Manchin, meanwhile, can point to a pragmatic, West Virginia-first record much like that of the late Sen. Robert Byrd in Washington. Manchin actually voted for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, last year.

Justice swept into office during a period when many West Virginians, like the nation as a whole, were fed up with the political establishment. They were tired of not seeing results in either Charleston or Washington.

Thing is, they remember Manchin as having gotten those results.

We’ll see.

Mike Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.