West Virginia Gubernatorial Race: An Anomaly of 2016

Posted: Sep 09, 2016 1:15 PM

In the down-ballot races for this year’s election, Trump’s coattails have been the backdrop of most analysis. Which makes sense – straight party voting is common and a presidential candidate’s performance has an effect on his or her party.

Most Republicans are worried about Trump’s negative consequences to down-ballot candidates in swing states. While the House should be safe, Senate control and a few governor seats are in play this year. Where Trump may be struggling in certain swing states, he is doing remarkably well in others – notably West Virginia. In fact, many analysts see Donald Trump possibly winning the Mountain State by an even wider margin than Romney’s 64 percent in 2012. This is one state where Trump could propel any Republican candidate over the finish line with ease.

This brings us to West Virginia’s election for governor. The current Democrat governor is term limited and cannot run again. Republican candidate (and president of the state senate) Bill Cole is competing against Democrat Jim Justice for the open seat. West Virginia, not long ago a Democratic stronghold, has seen a wave of Republican conversion over recent years as voters found in them an ally against liberals' war on coal.

The state is a prime pickup opportunity for the Republican Governors Association. Such a landscape even gave forecasters reason to rate the climate as favorable for a GOP win.

What is perplexing is that current polling shows this to not be the case. The latest gubernatorial poll to come out of West Virginia shows Jim Justice not just edging out his Republican rival, but creaming him with a double digit lead. Polls released beforehand have showed around similar results. For his part, Justice has been the most notable Democrat to date to announce he couldn’t support Hillary Clinton – a sharp contrast to the many Republicans saying the same about their own presidential party nominee. Justice has taken marked stances to the right to remain competitive and it seems to be working.

However, if Trump can pull a big enough win in West Virginia, he may be able to pull Bill Cole out of the slump. Larry Sabato’s Crystal ball and Roll Call still rate the race as “Tossup” so there’s still opportunity for Cole to swing polling in his direction.

But with waning days in the 2016 election, Cole has to change direction quickly if he wants to add another blow to West Virginia Democrats. We'll see what he can do at the two debates in October