During the state’s second gubernatorial debate last night, Democrat Jim Justice and Republican Bill Cole had an unlikely lovefest—over Donald Trump. Neither candidate could agree on who loved Donald Trump more.
Justice even called Trump a family friend. And that could be true. They certainly have a lot in common. Like Trump, Justice is obscenely rich; he enjoys the dubious honor of being West Virginia’s sole billionaire. Like Trump, he’s announced charitable donations he never actually fulfilled. And also like Trump, he’s not so great at paying taxes: He currently owes $3.9 million in unpaid taxes for properties in six counties.
Justice made his money in coal and has said before that he sees Clinton as an enemy to his industry. But Bernie Sanders is hardly friendly to coal either, and his populist message still propelled him to victory in the state’s Democratic primary.
So why didn’t Justice emulate the Vermont senator instead? The simple answer is that he can’t. He is a billionaire, and he became one by exploiting West Virginian coal miners. Further: Sanders’s brand of democratic socialism is hardly in his best interests. It makes perfect sense that he’s embracing Trump instead of leaning left.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Sanders’s primary victory is evidence that an unabashedly progressive candidate can succeed in a culturally conservative state. But the Democratic Party needs to put in the work. It can’t write off states like West Virginia; it must invest in its infrastructure there. If it doesn’t, it’ll create a political void that Democrats like Jim Justice are more than willing to fill.