WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Jim Justice — coal operator, resort owner, political newcomer and West Virginia’s richest man — won the Democratic primary for governor Tuesday, riding a campaign message of optimism and personal business success, fueled by millions of dollars of his own money.
Justice’s win vaults a businessman with virtually no experience in elected office (just one brief stint on the Raleigh County Board of Education nearly two decades ago) to the highest stage in West Virginia politics.
He handily defeated former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, neither of whom could compete financially with the billionaire coal and agriculture magnate.
The Associated Press called the race for Justice, with early returns showing he’d received about 50 percent of the vote, to 26 percent for Goodwin and 24 percent for Kessler.
With West Virginia staring at a budget deficit of nearly $200 million, and next year’s fiscal situation looking just as bleak, Justice ran a campaign in which he, alone among Democratic candidates, refused to advocate for either higher taxes or budget cuts. Instead, he promised, with little evidence other than his own business success, that he could help the state grow its way out of economic crisis.
“I’m a businessman, not a politician,” he said in one TV ad. “I create jobs. I’ve done it in coal, I’ve done it in agriculture, I’ve done it at The Greenbrier, now I want to do it for the whole state of West Virginia.”
At an election-night party in an ornate Greenbrier resort ballroom, where passed hors d’ouevres included ham biscuits, shrimp cocktail and grilled pimiento cheese sandwiches, Justice reiterated those themes.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a business guy,” Justice told a crowd of several hundred supporters while discussing West Virginia’s frequently last-place status in socioeconomic rankings. “If you elect another politician to the head of the line, to the biggest office in our state, this is going to be terribly blunt, but mark it down — you and I will die 50th.”
Justice’s general election opponent, state Senate President Bill Cole was unopposed in the Republican primary.
While Cole runs the Senate and is the lieutenant governor, he also is relatively new to politics, having served just one term in the Senate and a few months in the House of Delegates after being appointed to an open seat in 2010.
Cole’s words Tuesday night on his own political experience echoed Justice’s, in what could be a general election theme.
“I’m not a career politician, I’m a simple one-term state senator, but I’m a state senator that moved to the top — to state Senate president — and led the charge through the Legislature in moving our state in a positive direction,” Cole said in a phone interview. “I have experience, but not as a career politician.”
Both candidates will run campaigns focused on job creation, above all else.
“It truly is about putting people back to work first, all the other things come as a result,” Cole said.
“You’re in for a rocket-ship ride, as far as job creation, like you can’t believe,” Justice said, citing his business success. “You need someone that my dad would say has ‘done done it.’ ”
Justice spent more than $2 million of his own money on the primary race, about four times more than Goodwin and Kessler, combined, raised for their campaigns.
Kessler, in a phone interview, said he had no regrets.
“I gave it my best shot and came up short,” he said. “That’s what the people chose; that’s why they make democracy.”
He stopped short of saying he would support Justice, his fellow Democrat, after a campaign in which he repeatedly criticized Justice for refusing to delve into policy specifics.
“I would like to hear where he stands on some more substantive issues than we had the opportunity to discuss in the primary,” Kessler said. “Move his platform along a little more.”
In a very brief speech at his election headquarters in downtown Charleston, Goodwin talked about what he might have done as governor and how to turn around the trend of West Virginians leaving the state.
“Obviously, the result is not what we hoped, but what a ride,” said Goodwin, who launched his campaign in January, shortly after stepping down as U.S. attorney.
Justice’s win sets up a general election matchup that promises to be among the most expensive in West Virginia history.
The fall election will be between a billionaire (Justice) and a millionaire (Cole), as Kessler frequently dubbed them.
Both Justice and Cole will fund their own campaigns, although Justice to a much larger extent. Justice has already spent more than $2 million of his own money — about 80 percent of his campaign coffers, while about 10 percent of the $1.1 million raised by Cole has come from his own pocket.
Both will continue to fund themselves, to some degree, through the general election.
Outside money also has already begun to flood the race, and the spending from outside the state is sure to increase.
The Republican Governors Association has already spent more than $550,000 boosting Cole, before he even had an opponent.
David Moran, a Libertarian Party candidate for governor, also will be on the general election ballot in the fall.
The campaign will break down along fairly traditional lines, with business groups largely siding with the Republican and labor groups largely siding with the Democrat.
Cole has won the endorsement of the state Business and Industry Council and the West Virginia Coal Association, while Justice has won the endorsement of the United Mine Workers union and the two state teachers unions.
Cole, who endorsed and campaigned with presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump last week, likely will try to link Justice with national Democrats, most of whom are very unpopular in West Virginia. Justice repeatedly has declined to endorse any presidential candidate, a stance he likely will try to hold through the general election, where Trump looks to be a big favorite in West Virginia over either Democrats Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
Cole’s campaign has, for months, been pointing to a $30,000 donation that Justice made to the Democratic National Committee in 2011 as evidence that the coal magnate supported President Barack Obama. However, Justice has a long history of donating to both parties, and was a registered Republican little more than a year ago. His family gave $200,000 to the Republican Governors Association on the eve of the 2012 elections.
In prepared remarks Tuesday night, Cole was quick to tie himself to Trump.
“I stand with Donald Trump, because he will stop the EPA’s assault on our coal industry and allow us to put our coal miners back to work,” he said.
But after several election cycles in which Republicans have had success tying state Democrats to Obama and a “war on coal,” that may be difficult to do against Justice, who is a coal operator himself.
Justice spoke Tuesday night about “not giving up on coal” and has said repeatedly that he sees a possibility of the struggling industry bouncing back to its former heights.
Even the most very optimistic industry analysts — for instance the state Coal Association — do not predict such a comeback.
Staff writer Lydia Nuzum contributed to this report.