Gov. Jim Justice switches from Dem to GOP

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 32 – This week:

  • Major party-switch increases Republican influence
  • Is there a silver lining to Republican failure on healthcare?
  • Alabama Senate race headed to runoff


Healthcare vote: The immediate and sensible reaction to Republicans’ failure to pass a healthcare reform bill is that they simple can’t govern. They spent seven years promising to repeal Obamacare but lacked a serious plan to do it.

This could well cost certain Republicans votes in upcoming primaries, but there’s another side to the issue. Democrats suffered massive losses in 2010 and 2014 because Obamacare caused so much disruption for ordinary people living under the status quo of a dysfunctional medical payment system. The anger over people losing health insurance plan and doctors they liked made it easy to oust candidates from the party of President Obama, whose false promises had led them to hope for something better.

But Republicans might have been over-optimistic to believe that the voters chose Republicans because they share any particular vision of a consumer-based healthcare system. Voters might have simply been upset at the instability that Obamacare created — which means they would be equally hostile toward a Republican bill that destabilized the status quo.

By failing to pass their own healthcare bill, which would have inevitably caused problems for some segment of the population, Republicans might well have dodged a political bullet. Especially considering that none of the Republican proposals with a realistic chance of passing would have truly repealed Obamacare, they might well be better off waiting for Obamacare to collapse under its own weight, or at least to cause big enough problems in the individual health insurance market that it would inspire a true consumer rebellion.

Granted, this requires glass-half-full thinking for a party that just suffered a massive legislative failure. But as long as insurance consumers aren’t facing a major disruption to the status quo, Republicans are at least better off today than Democrats were in July 2010 or July 2013.

Party change: Given the historically poor level of President Trump’s approval ratings, one might not have expected to see Democratic officials jumping ship to join the Republican Party. One might have even expected to see the opposite occur.

But the defection of Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia from Democrat to Republican, at a Trump rally and without foreknowledge of his own Democratic staff, has completely flipped that script. Inside the beltway, people are preoccupied with Russia and with President Trump’s every tweet. Outside the beltway, things are very different. Real life goes on. And in West Virginia, Trump has not only made friend but also found a way to expand the Republican Party’s big tent to a governor who represents a true working-class and solidly Republican state.

To be sure, Justice was something of a crypto-Republican even before his election as a Democrat last November. But when the voters chose him as governor along with Donald Trump for president, they sent a message that they were still willing to split their tickets. That may longer be a guarantee for any Democrat running for office in the Mountain State, just as it isn’t anywhere else where Trump won. The Democratic Party in West Virginia, the home of the original “redneck” rebellion by workers, is in its death throes. And having abandoned the trappings of working class values, it will most likely be dead for the lifetime of anyone reading this.

It turns out that working-class voters want to keep working with dignity, instead of becoming potential beneficiaries of the dubious government-subsidized clean energy initiatives that Hillary Clinton touted during her presidential candidacy.

The Obama Administration worked very hard to alienate the Appalachian vote at a moment when it made no sense to do so. With Obama administration officials proclaiming their intention to put the coal industry out of business — to crucify the uncooperative as an example for others — Obama went above and beyond the demands of his environmentalist base. And Republicans were more than willing to draw attention to what was going on.

Big coal’s demise is ultimately the result of market forces — of lower prices for natural gas. But this doesn’t change the fact Democrats worked very hard to put their signature on the death sentence for Appalachia’s regional economy. In doing so, they had the backing of a white urban gentry that views climate catastrophe as a greater threat than crime, the opioid crisis, a new housing bubble, or the implosion of rural job markets in places like West Virginia.

The price that Democrats have paid for their belief in environmentalist millenarianism is very high, and it stretches geographically from western Pennsylvania to southwest Arkansas. But pay it they have and they might well keep paying it.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D, who is running for re-election to the U.S. Senate, may yet win. But he will face a more skeptical electorate this time around that he has before, just because of his party label. And he has former President Obama’s policies to thank for that.

Justice’s party switch puts Republicans in complete control of state law for 48 percent of the U.S. public, compared to a mere 17 percent who fall under complete Democratic control. This puts the GOP near 50 percent of the U.S. population in terms of whom it governs without opposition. Republicans have more power at the state level than they have in a any time in the last 90 years, since the administration of President Calvin Coolidge.

Senate 2017

Alabama: The race for the former seat of Attorney General Jeff Sessions is almost certain to go to a runoff, as no candidate will likely get more than half of the vote on August 15. This expected outcome will represent a massive and important frustration of Senate Republican leaders’ hopes, after their multi-million-dollar efforts on behalf of an appointed incumbent.

The incumbent, appointed Sen. Luther Strange, polls very poorly for an incumbent. His best hope at this point is to end up in a runoff, probably against former state Chief Justice Roy Moore. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., is the candidate that old guard conservative groups are backing, but he is third in the available polls and far enough behind that his chances are doubtful.

For any incumbent polling in the low 30s, as Strange is currently in all of the polls available, victory in a runoff is very doubtful. This race is especially interesting because it permits Republican primary voters to cast a vote against the party’s leadership without any serious risk of losing ground in the Senate. And it comes within just a few weeks of the leadership’s failure to pass an Obamacare repeal bill.

Senate 2018

Missouri: Despite multiple high-profile recruiting failures, Republicans can take heart in at least one of the races where they are expected to make a serious challenge against a Democratic incumbent. Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley has formed an exploratory committee to run against endangered Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.

If he follows through, Hawley is both a favorite to defeat McCaskill and a sure bet for the GOP nomination.