‘Comeback kid’? Governor gets unlikely boost from virus

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Before the coronavirus upended the world, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice was in trouble.

His own party rebelled against him. Federal prosecutors investigated him. Embarrassing lawsuits loomed.

But now some believe that the Republican governor has been able to use his daily virus news conferences to stabilize his reputation ahead of the primary elections next week, while drowning out competitors whose campaigns have been drastically hamstrung by the pandemic.

“The irony is, he could be the comeback kid because of the crisis,” said Robert Rupp, a history and political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

The governor’s apparent rebound offers yet another illustration of how dramatically the COVID-19 pandemic has turned life upside down in the U.S. It also reinforces the notion that the politics of 2020 are sure to be infused with its implications, from the presidential contest on down.

In West Virginia and other states, incumbent governors on the ballot this year have been given a daily platform to demonstrate leadership. Upstart challengers more dependent on retail politics to make their names known have found themselves locked down in quarantine for weeks.

Thousands of people tune in to Justice’s daily public briefings, which take place in the Capitol but are closed to in-person attendance. He normally begins by recounting the latest deaths, laying out the state’s strategy and then offering a confident self-assessment of his performance before turning the mic over to administration officials who continue praising the governor’s work.

Journalists can ask questions through a teleconference call but the governor’s office picks the questioners and does not allow follow-ups when answers are vague.

Justice, a billionaire without previous political experience, has stumbled at times in his briefings. He has publicly wondered why people were looking to him for answers and told people to dine out when health officials were warning against packing into restaurants. In one particularly confusing news conference in late March, Justice rambled though puzzling math equations and said the pandemic is like being “lost in a movie that we can’t relate to in any way.”

Still, deaths and infections remain relatively low in West Virginia and Justice has won praise for deferring to the advice of health experts. He has said he will not bend to economic demands over safety, though he did receive criticism after he said he will let gyms and tanning salons reopen after business owners bombarded his office with calls.

The news conferences have been a boon for Justice, according to rival candidates, who cite both public and private polling. Through his campaign manager, Justice declined to be interviewed for this story.

“The fact that he has the ability to do that every single day for over an hour, and then be put on the evening news and the following morning news and be reprinted, is an incredible benefit if you’re running for public office,” said Woody Thrasher, who is running against Justice for the GOP nomination. Thrasher said his internal polling shows Justice closing in on his lead, though his campaign declined to share the polling.

The governor has declined to debate his Republican opponents, saying it would be a “waste of time” and that he’s been preoccupied with handling the pandemic. During one of his recent news conferences, Justice said he’s been so busy that he doesn’t even know where his own campaign office is located.

Justice won office in 2016 as a Democrat with the backing of influential and long-term West Virginia Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. But after less than a year as governor, Justice changed his party affiliation at a rally with President Donald Trump, telling the crowd that he could no longer help the state as a Democrat. Trump won almost 70% of voters in West Virginia in the last presidential election.

The governor has repeatedly reminded voters of his closeness with the president. He frequently mentions Trump during his news conferences, usually to reiterate that he has the president’s ear and support. One of Justice’s most recent reelection ads portrays the governor as “Pro Trump.”

With the pandemic making traditional campaigning nearly impossible, those looking to unseat Justice have struggled to get the same level of attention the governor has enjoyed.

One Democratic candidate, Stephen Smith, who amassed a network of campaign volunteers and small donors with the promise of sweeping social reforms, has turned to social media. Smith launched his campaign in late 2018 and crisscrossed the state to hold dozens of town halls.

“It’s absolutely harder to raise money in this moment for a campaign like ours that relies on the people who are bearing the greatest burden of this crisis,” he said.

Drive down a main street in West Virginia and you may see another Democratic hopeful, Ben Salango, standing on the side of the road with a sign for what he calls a “honk and wave.” A lawyer and commissioner of West Virginia’s biggest county, Salango said he’s been relying on TV ads as well as social media in the final stretch to the election.

“I enjoy that one-on-one interaction with people and I have not been able to do that since COVID-19,” he said, adding that the governor’s news conferences have “certainly given him some assistance in the Republican primary.”

Justice has also used his news conferences to vent at length about his political opponents. He has criticized Manchin, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, and other Democrats. He also announced his reelection campaign was filing a complaint against Thrasher for a political ad.

“All I am doing is trying to take care of West Virginia,” Justice told reporters recently.

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