2020 governor’s race begins

Political scientists devote their lives to using scholarly studies to develop formulas predicting how people will vote. Campaign consultants rake in six-figure fees by assuring candidates they can do that. Pollsters insist they’ve got it down to a science.

With all that in mind, who’s going to be West Virginia’s next governor?

My off-the-cuff bet would be incumbent Gov. Jim Justice — if he repairs the right roads. At this point, no observer with any common sense would bet on the outcome, however.

With more than 18 months to go before the November 2020 election, much can change before we go to the polls. Already, there’s a two-man race, and it has turned ugly.

No surprise there. Former state Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher announced this week he is running for governor — as a Republican. He had been a registered Democrat, but switched in March.

Justice, you may recall, did the same thing after he was elected governor. It was a smart move. He used Democrat loyalists’ votes to win in November 2016, then switched to Republican in the state that gave President Donald Trump his biggest win in the nation.

In his announcement, Thrasher took a restrained shot at Justice: “I just want West Virginia to have really good leadership, and I do not believe we have that really good leadership now.”

Justice never even bothered to put the gloves on: “The governor is going to continue working every day to protect West Virginia from the abuse of politicians like Mr. Thrasher.” He went on to reference Thrasher’s time as commerce secretary, and the reason Justice said he fired him: “Mr. Thrasher used his appointed position to travel all over the world on the taxpayers’ dime to promote the private companies of his friends …”

It’ll get worse.

A few things to consider about the gubernatorial race:

• There are no big-name, big-money Democrat candidates yet. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., could get into the race — and frankly, I think he’s the only Democrat with any chance of beating Justice. He did prevail in the race for re-election, over Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

• But there’s a difference in running for governor. Increasingly, out-of-state money fuels campaigns, not just here but everywhere. However, the race last fall attracted donors because control of the Senate was a factor. Who in Los Angeles, New York or Washington cares about who wins a gubernatorial race in the Mountain State?

• There’s a wild card, there. His name is Donald Trump. He and Justice have a personal relationship. Trump’s name means something to voters here.

• A potential Democrat candidate may reflect that voter registration favors his party. True enough, only about 33 percent of West Virginia voters are Republicans, compared to 41 percent Democrats (the rest are “third parties” or independents). But many of those Democrats voted for Trump the last time around.

• There’s another wild card: Don Blankenship. The wealthy coal baron wanted to challenge Manchin in the Senate race last year, but lost to Morrisey in the GOP primary. Then, he began a campaign to hurt Morrisey. My friend Bill Phillips, whose phillipsbillboard.com often offers political insights, thinks he sees Blankenship’s hand in some of the anti-Justice action among a few Republican county executive committees. He asks, “Could it be Don Blankenship and his long time crew are preparing to challenge Governor Justice in 2020 and take over the Republican Party in the process?”

• How will the labor unions handle the gubernatorial election? Three powerful ones, representing public school employees, seem to like Justice. Could that change after a special legislative session on education in the next few weeks?

• Finally, back to roads. Justice knows voters often use ballots to show their frustration over potholes. Will where he spends his $240 million on road repairs have a political angle? If so, will he hit the right counties?

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