Next year's election for governor of West Virginia got interesting last week when Woody Thrasher, the former secretary of commerce under Gov. Jim Justice, announced his intention to run for the office as a Republican.
Like Justice, Thrasher is a former Democrat who hopes to sell his experience in the private sector to voters who anymore seem to favor outsiders over people who have spent their careers in the public sector. Thrasher's campaign materials even promise he will drain the swamp in Charleston.
Justice carries more baggage than a 747, but Thrasher's record as commerce secretary isn't exactly spotless. His handling of the RISE program that was supposed to funnel flood-relief money into areas impacted by the 2016 floods led to his resignation. And he was a central player in the ballyhooed multibillion Chinese investment announcement in late 2017 that hasn't resulted in anything yet.
There are other candidates. As of Friday morning, four people had filed pre-candidacy papers and financial statements with the Secretary of State's Office. Mile Folk, a Martinsburg resident who formerly served in the House of Delegates, had filed as a Republican. The website said he had raised $10,504 in donations. Rebecca Mareta Henderson of Parkersburg had also filed as a Republican. She reported no donations. Justice also had filed pre-candidacy papers and reported no donations.
An independent, Quentin Gerard Caldwell of South Charleston, also had filed.
On the Democratic side, Stephen Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids Foundation, has announced his intention to run. The wild card on that side is former governor and now U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. Manchin has said he is considering a run. As other people have noted, few people would have a realistic chance of challenging Manchin for the nomination, so Manchin's flirting with a run, if he is serious, effectively shuts down trial balloons from other candidates until Manchin announces his decision.
A few years ago, West Virginia was such a heavily Democratic state that Republicans often had to find token candidates to run for statewide office in many races. Those were the days when Sen. Robert C. Byrd dominated the political landscape and the GOP had no hope of capturing control of the Legislature.
But Byrd died nearly a decade ago, and the GOP has replaced the Democratic Party in dominating the Legislature and most statewide offices. Yet West Virginia's current governor was elected as a Democrat and switched parties after spending his first few months in office insulting the Republican leadership in the Legislature. Thrasher may be Justice's most viable challenger, but he, too, is a party changer.
It may be like former President Ronald Reagan said when he explained why he changed parties: "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me." If Evan Jenkins can switch parties and be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and if Justice can switch after he is elected, there might not be much downside to Thrasher's decision.
Justice has never really been embraced by the state party leadership. His re-election might come down to how many potholes get filled and how many miles of road get paved this year. People also might need to see tangible results from the big road construction bond issue they approved in 2017. For other candidates - those who have announced and those who have not - it may come down to who can best sell themselves as not being Jim Justice.
We have a little more than a year until the primary election. We'll just have to wait and see how things play out between now and then.