The Week in Politics: GOP Governors' Best Chance to Grow, What Rematches Mean for Democrats and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | May 6, 2016
West Virginia state Senate President Bill Cole is running unopposed in Tuesday's GOP primary. (Flickr/Southern States Energy Board)

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West Virginia Could Elect First GOP Governor Since 1996

West Virginia state Senate President Bill Cole stands a good chance of becoming the first Republican elected governor of the Mountain State in 20 years. He's running unopposed in the GOP primary on Tuesday and will start the fall campaign as the early favorite.

On the Democratic side, coal billionaire Jim Justice has been trading attacks with rivals Booth Goodwin, a former U.S. attorney, and Jeff Kessler, the Democratic leader in the state Senate. While Justice's competitors have gone after him for failing to pay property taxes, he's sought to tarnish Goodwin and Kessler as career politicians.

"For the entire [primary] race, the prediction has been that it will be Jim Justice, largely from a combination of existing name recognition and also the fact that he's spending a ton more money than his two opponents," said Scott Crichlow, who chairs the political science department at West Virginia University. "The opposition to him is split, but at the same time, he's been attracting the most negative ads."

Recent polling suggests primary support for Justice, who's invariably described as the richest man in the state, may have slipped. But assuming he prevails in the primary, he'll certainly have the funds to run a competitive race against Cole. A poll released this week shows Justice leading Cole, 41 to 35 percent.

But the consensus among political pundits is that West Virginia offers the GOP the best chance it has this year to increase the party's gubernatorial ranks. The state hasn't supported a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton in 1996, and early polling suggests West Virginia will be one of Donald Trump's strongest states. On Monday, a crowd of protesters in the state heckled Hillary Clinton about anti-coal remarks she made earlier this year. In 2014, Republicans took control of West Virginia's legislature for the first time in more than 80 years and won every available congressional seat.

Democrats hope voters will be convinced the GOP has overreached, particularly on legislation overturning prevailing wage requirements and making West Virginia a right-to-work state. But the state's increasing tilt toward the GOP makes holding the governor's office an uphill challenge for any Democrat.

"It's going to be very, very hard for a Democrat to win in 2016," said Crichlow. "The legislative elections in 2014 were pretty close to a wipeout, and there's not much expectation that the state's mood has changed in two years."

What Rematches Mean for Indiana's Democratic Party

The gubernatorial field in Indiana is now set. Republican Gov. Mike Pence received his party's blessing on Tuesday and will be challenged by John Gregg, a former Democratic state House speaker.

It's a rematch. Pence narrowly defeated Gregg four years ago and appears vulnerable this time, largely due to his handling of a religious freedom bill in 2015.

The fact that Democrats nominated Gregg again shows that their bench is depleted. Not only is Gregg a repeat candidate, but he hasn't served in elected office since 2002.

Something similar happened in the state's U.S. Senate contests. Democrats picked Baron Hill, a former member of Congress. Hill will face GOP Rep. Todd Young, who ousted Hill from his congressional seat back in 2010.

There just don't seem to be many Indiana Democrats whose careers were launched more recently than the 1990s. Indiana, however, isn't the only state where Democrats lack candidates with fresh faces. It's a problem for the party in many states.

In Florida, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist -- who made an unsuccessful bid for the office as a Democrat in 2014 -- is staging his latest comeback attempt in a U.S. House race. He caught a break this week when his Democratic primary opponent Eric Lynn dropped out, announcing he'd run for the state House instead.

Odds and Ends

Corruption in New YorkSheldon Silver, the former longtime Democratic speaker of the New York Assembly, is set to join a parade of legislators from that state doing time in prison. Silver was sentenced on Tuesday to 12 years and given a $1.75 million fine for fraud and extortion charges.

Dean Skelos, the former Republican state Senate majority leader who was convicted on federal corruption charges last year, faces sentencing on May 12.

Some State Parties Play Musical Chairs: The North Carolina GOP's executive committee ousted Hasan Harnett as state party chair last Saturday. Harnett had previously been barred from the party's office because of accusations of misconduct and "gross inefficiency." The remainder of his term will be filled by Robin Hayes, a former member of Congress who chaired the party from 2011 to 2013.

By contrast, California Republicans are so happy with their chair, Jim Brulte, that they changed party rules last weekend to allow him to serve two more two-year terms. Democrats continue to dominate California, but Brulte has been credited with shoring up the party's finances and cutting into the Democrats' lead in the legislature.

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