Crunch time for Justice

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is running out of time to pave the way for re-election or — assuming this is important to him — for another Republican to succeed him. After a short break in the wake of Nov. 6 balloting, the 2020 election season will be upon us before we know it.

Sorry. I know that’s an awful thing to think about during the Christmas season.

In some ways, the politicians already are preparing for 2020.

One question is whether Justice even wants to run for re-election. Other top Republicans are primed and ready to make the run.

Either way, one thing on the governor’s mind should be making his administration look like a gigantic success. That will be essential for him or any other Republican.

Any GOP candidate for governor will face a much more difficult race than was the case for Justice in 2016. Ironically, his victory then bodes ill for Republicans.

Remember, Justice ran for governor as a Democrat. It was only after he was elected that he opted to switch parties. As a Democrat, he received 49.09 percent of the vote in 2016. Republican Bill Cole, then president of the state Senate, came in with just 42.3 percent (the remaining votes were scattered among candidates from the Mountain, Constitution and Libertarian parties).

It’ll be even tougher for a Republican in 2020, for one reason: Many of those folks with “Remember in November” signs won’t be throwing them away. They’ll just paint in “2020” under the “November.”

Leaders of the “Remember in November” movement had some success this fall in defeating Republican candidates for the Legislature — but it was far from universal. They’ll be back next year in an attempt to return the state to Democrat control.

Justice has been trying to placate some involved in the movement — members of the teachers’ and school service personnel unions. He takes credit for the 5 percent pay raise granted state employees earlier this year, and he and GOP lawmakers have promised another 5 percent in 2019. In addition, the governor is seeking a $100 million increase in annual support for the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

All that may help his popularity with some public school employees. But the “Remember” movement really wasn’t about their grievances. It was a carefully manipulated campaign to kick Republicans out of office and replace them with Democrats. Again, it’ll continue.

One wonders why some of the grassroots supporters of “Remember” didn’t stop to ask themselves why Democrats, during the more than 80 years that they controlled the Capitol, didn’t do much for school employees.

But it is what it is, and that means Justice and other Republicans have to find a way to make their mark.

“Roads to Prosperity,” Justice’s big initiative to build new highways and bridges, won’t do the trick. By November 2020, quite a few voters will be asking why their roads are still a mess.

What about the economy, traditionally a key to elections? It has improved under Justice, but not much: The West Virginia unemployment rate in October was 5.2 percent, down just slightly since November 2016.

Fewer than 5,000 more people have jobs than on Election Day 2016 — so that won’t help a Republican candidate for governor much.

How about President Donald Trump’s coattails in 2020? They’ll have an effect, but perhaps not decisively. Ask U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who was re-elected last month as a Democrat.

Here’s an idea: Justice already has some foundation to claim he’s a reformer. For example, serious problems with the RISE flood relief program were corrected on his watch. Some state officials and employees who, frankly, were doing lousy jobs have been replaced.

But Justice needs more — and it will have to come through his initiatives, not federal prosecutors. Exposing and punishing a few high-ranking corrupt officials would do a lot of good for the governor or another Republican candidate.

Unfortunately, it appears there are plenty of the usual suspects from which to choose, if Justice takes that route.

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

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