CHARLESTON (AP) — Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango won the Democratic nomination for governor of West Virginia on Tuesday, setting up a November showdown with incumbent Republican Gov. Jim Justice.
Salango narrowly defeated progressive community organizer Stephen Smith to win the Democratic nomination. Justice, a billionaire coal and agricultural businessman, trounced Woody Thrasher, former state lawmaker Mike Folk and others to win the GOP nomination.
As a commissioner of the state’s most populated county, Salango emphasized his experience in government throughout his campaign, which has pulled in endorsements from organized labor groups, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and former West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton.
“This is the first step. Tomorrow morning we start working on the general,” Salango said as he declared victory at his Charleston campaign headquarters.
Justice made President Donald Trump a centerpiece of his reelection bid, frequently name-dropping the president in campaign ads and during his daily coronavirus news conferences that were watched by thousands of people. This week, Trump tweeted a message of support for the governor: “Big Jim is doing a tremendous job for West Virginia. Vote for Big Jim!”
In a conference call Tuesday night, Justice thanked supporters, touched on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and looked forward to a “big challenge” ahead.
“We’ve got to be sure that we elect our president back,” he said.
The governor’s victory came after back-to-back years of widespread teacher protests, feuds with both Republicans and Democrats, as well as a piles of litigation against his private businesses and a lawsuit that alleged he was violating the state Constitution because he doesn’t live in the state capital.
Before the election, some said the governor was able to stabilize his reputation through his daily coronavirus news conferences, which had provided him with a reliable platform to emphasize his accomplishments while other candidates were unable to conduct traditional retail politics.
Robert Rupp, a history and political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, speculated that Justice “could be the comeback kid because of the crisis.” Meanwhile, Salango, unable to do door-to-door campaigning, took to street corners with a sign for what he called a “honk and wave.”
Justice had also won kudos for deferring to public health experts during the pandemic, with virus deaths and cases remaining relatively low in the state. He has pushed forward with an aggressive plan to lift virus restrictions and reopen the state’s economy.
Still, Justice has hurt his own cause at times.
During a recent news conference, the governor, without a prompt, said he would welcome all presidents to the state except for former President Barack Obama. The comment drew swift criticism from people who pointed out Obama was the first and only black president, and that it came as days of protests over police brutality on African Americans gripped cities across the nation. Justice disputed claims that he was biased and insisted he has black friends.
In Charleston, 34-year-old stay-at-home mom Tessa Bentley said she voted for Justice because she believes he has done a good job with the pandemic, and she enjoyed when the governor appeared to use an expletive to reinforce how much he wanted people to follow virus safety guidelines.
“I just like Jim Justice. He’s funny,” she said after voting for the incumbent. “I know lots of people who didn’t like him until he said to follow the f’ing guidelines.”
The governor has denied using the expletive, calling it an audio glitch.
Justice was first elected as a Democrat in 2016 but announced he was switching parties at a rally with Trump after less than a year in office. He declined to debate his Republican opponents in the primary, saying it would be a “waste of time” and that he’s been preoccupied with handling the pandemic.
Smith, the community organizer, conceded the Democratic race to Salango around midnight during a teleconference call. The Harvard University and London School of Economics-educated progressive built his campaign on small donations and sweeping social reforms, railing against the “good old boys club” of lobbyists and policy makers at the Capitol.
“I could not be more proud of the fights we chose,” Smith told supporters. “I could not be more proud of the people I got to stand shoulder to shoulder with.”
The election came after state officials postponed the primary from May to June because of the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of voters turned in absentee ballots ahead of election day as the state expanded vote-by-mail options to reduce the number of people at the polls during the pandemic.
State election officials said there were no major issues at polling places Tuesday as voters cast ballots on the hottest day of the year. Some governments around the U.S. have reported delays in election results due to the high numbers of absentee balloting.
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