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W.Va. race could be pivotal to deciding which party controls the U.S. Senate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Back in 2016, Democrat Joe Manchin endorsed Jim Justice for governor of West Virginia. Justice was a coal mine owner. He also was a Democrat, as Joe Manchin was. Now Justice is a Republican, and he wants Senator Manchin's job. NPR's Dave Mistich reports on a 2024 race, one of several that will decide control of the Senate.

DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: In announcing his run for Senate, Jim Justice addressed the crowd gathered at his lavish Greenbrier Resort with a line he's repeated to West Virginians for years.

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JIM JUSTICE: Too many politicians today want something for them, and I've never wanted anything.

MISTICH: Justice, whose campaign did not respond to NPR's requests for an interview was once listed by Forbes magazine as a billionaire. In the political arena, he's framed himself as folksy, and he's leaned into an unconventional approach. He once unveiled a platter of bull manure while announcing a budget veto, and he had a public spat with actress Bette Midler after she called the state poor, illiterate and strung-out. Her comments were initially directed at Joe Manchin, but in a State of the State address, Justice held up his bulldog and told Midler to kiss the dogs, quote, "heinie." He mentioned the feud just last month while announcing his Senate campaign.

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JUSTICE: For God's sakes a-living, you know I'm different. Anybody that would hold up a bulldog's behind to the camera at the State of the State for Bette Midler absolutely will just about do anything.

MISTICH: Twenty-seven-year-old Kennedy Roberts of Morgantown says Justice's penchant for improvised parables, colloquialisms and other antics plays well with him.

KENNEDY ROBERTS: If this were someone who you sensed dishonesty in, it would come off as performative. But it's not so much performative as it is theatrical. It's - there is an honesty behind it.

MISTICH: While he has the support of many West Virginians, including Roberts, there have been many scandals clouding his time in office. In 2016, an NPR investigation showed Justice's companies owed millions in unpaid taxes and mine fines. And there's been other legal troubles. A Democratic state lawmaker sued Justice to get him to abide by the state constitution and reside in the state capital of Charleston.

While in office, Justice announced he and state officials he'd appointed had reached a deal to clear his tax debts - though no details were released. The residency suit was dismissed with Justice agreeing to live in the governor's mansion after being ordered to do so by the state Supreme Court. More recently, lenders have taken his businesses to court over allegations of unpaid debts. Justice's son, who oversees these businesses, says they have a path to pay off these loans but have been unable to reach an agreement with the lender. Back in Morgantown, Roberts says these legal issues don't concern him.

ROBERTS: I couldn't really even tell you other than in broad generalities what exactly the accusations are against Governor Justice.

MISTICH: During the pandemic, Justice captured residents' attention through regular briefings, reading the ages and home counties of every person who died of COVID. He made note of it as he kicked off his Senate campaign.

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JUSTICE: This state didn't shut down. We made the right decisions. We made the right decisions to protect our counties and on and on and on.

MISTICH: Over the course of his two terms as governor, Justice has tackled some top conservative priorities. He signed a near-total ban on abortion, a ban on gender-affirming care for minors, a bill that allows guns on university campuses and big cuts to the state's personal income tax. In terms of a Senate race, Justice recently tweeted that securing the southern border would be his top priority. West Virginia House Speaker Roger Hanshaw says Justice has approached the governor's office the same way he oversees his sprawling business ventures.

ROGER HANSHAW: What he excels at and what he likes to do is talk in terms of philosophy and general approach and overall concept and then leave it to the legislators and his staff to really formulate the specific policies.

MISTICH: Despite the GOP's dominance in West Virginia, Hanshaw, a Republican, says he wouldn't count out Manchin, who plays a key role with Democrats holding a slim majority in the Senate.

HANSHAW: No one's ever made any money betting against Joe Manchin in politics. And if he decides that he's going to be in the race, that will be a competitive race.

MISTICH: But before Justice might get a chance to take on Manchin, he'll have to win a primary that includes Congressman Alex Mooney. And the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is suing Justice for not releasing his schedule as governor under a public records request. Justice's office says his schedule only exists in draft form. West Virginia University political science professor Sam Workman says former President Donald Trump will likely be another factor as Justice and Mooney seek Trump's endorsement.

SAM WORKMAN: And how much that matters is anybody's guess. But if it's going to matter anywhere, post-midterms, it's going to be here in this state.

MISTICH: Manchin has yet to announce his plans for 2024. But as Justice announced his Senate campaign, Manchin put out a confident statement promising he'll win any race he enters.

Dave Mistich, NPR News. Morgantown, W.V. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Mistich
Originally from Washington, W.Va., Dave Mistich joined NPR part-time as an associate producer for the Newcast unit in September 2019 — after nearly a decade of filing stories for the network as a Member station reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In July 2021, he also joined the Newsdesk as a part-time reporter.