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WVa governor to reveal 2024 plans; Is Manchin in crosshairs?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Gov. Jim Justice once used a visit by then-President Donald Trump to West Virginia as the stage to announce his switch to the Republican Party. Now he’s set for another big reveal that could have national implications.

On his 72nd birthday, Justice has scheduled an announcement for Thursday evening at a posh resort that he owns, likely ending months of speculation about whether the two-term governor will seek the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Joe Manchin.

Justice, who is barred by state law from seeking a third consecutive term as governor, has been fielding questions about his Senate plans for months. If he runs, the announcement would set up what could be a hard-fought campaign against two of the state’s most prominent politicians.

Manchin, who endorsed Justice in his first gubernatorial bid before their relationship deteriorated, has said he’ll decide his future political plans in December. His federal campaign filings show he already has more than $9.7 million cash on hand. If Manchin seeks reelection, Justice’s announcement means Manchin is likely in for his toughest test in his three decades in West Virginia politics. But it was never going to be easy.

Manchin is one of three Democratic senators up for reelection in 2024 who represent a state won by former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. He has been the only Democrat elected to statewide office in West Virginia since Justice switched his party affiliation in 2017.

A Senate bid by Justice would set up a matchup in the 2024 GOP primary with U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney. Mooney jumped into the Senate race less than two weeks after winning his fifth term in the House last November. State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who lost to Manchin in the 2018 general election, has announced he will run for governor next year.

No Democrats have announced a challenge to Manchin. But Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a progressive, has suggested he would support a primary opponent to the conservative Democrat, who was responsible for watering down much of President Joe Biden’s social spending agenda.

As governor, Justice took advantage of Trump’s popularity amid a red wave in West Virginia. Justice was first elected as a Democrat, then switched to the GOP seven months after taking office, taking the stage at an event with Trump to make the announcement in 2017.

Justice said he told Manchin about the party switch the day before his announcement, keeping it secret even from the governor’s own staff. Manchin said the switch disappointed him.

Now foes, the pair have traded jabs ever since. In 2019, Justice in a news release called Manchin “one of those loud Washington liberals” who hadn’t embraced Trump. He blamed Manchin, a former two-term governor, for the state’s neglected road system. Manchin returned fire, saying “knowing Jim Justice’s character, it’s not a surprise for him to make a comment like this. He blames others for the work he hasn’t done.”

Justice is known for his exuberant and sometimes oddball method of delivery. He attends major events with his beloved English bulldog Babydog in tow, and Thursday’s announcement will likely be no different. He famously brought the pup to his 2022 State of the State address. During his speech, he flashed his dog’s rear end to the cameras to send a message to the liberal singer Bette Midler that she could kiss Babydog’s “heinie” for criticizing West Virginia residents.

The room of legislators gave him a standing ovation.

In touting the state’s accomplishments, Justice often conjures up one of his favorite sayings: “Any frog who is not proud of his own pond is not much of a frog.”

In January 2023, Justice reintroduced an often-made proposal to cut the state’s personal income tax. Justice said legislative leaders told him to either give up trying or “make a big splash.”

“And so here comes me cannonballing into the pool,” the governor said. “By God, I’ll make a big splash. I’ll promise you that … tonight I’m proposing our West Virginia tsunami that the world will hear in every single way.”

After lawmakers agreed to a compromise tax cut of 21.25%, Justice signed it in early March.

Before going into politics, Justice bought the 6,500-acre (2,630-hectare) Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs out of bankruptcy for $20.1 million. Within a year he had constructed a bunker casino beneath the posh resort’s 721-room hotel and established a PGA Tour golf event that was held on the Old White TPC for 10 years.

Justice reached billionaire status through family-owned farms and coal mines. His worth peaked at $1.7 billion, but he was taken off Forbes’ prestigious list of billionaires in 2021. He blamed a bankrupt U.K. bank for fraudulently inducing him into personally guaranteeing $700 million in loans that were taken out by his companies.

Justice’s businesses faced several other woes, including millions of dollars in penalties from the federal government and court fights over claims his companies failed to deliver coal, pay tax debts owed to counties or contribute toward monthly premiums on employee benefit plans.

Once asked about how he manages cash flow in his businesses, Justice told a reporter, “I don’t sit on a pot of gold.”

During his first years as governor, he didn’t spend a lot of time at the seat of government in Charleston, instead choosing to commute from his home in Lewisburg, West Virginia. That prompted a lawsuit by a lawmaker who called him a “part-time governor.” The case concluded in 2021 when Justice agreed to live in Charleston.

Justice made clear soon after being elected that he would continue to coach the Greenbrier East girls basketball team, a job he has held for more than two decades. He led the Spartans to the state championship in 2012.

Whether he continues moonlighting as a coach if he becomes a U.S. senator remains to be seen.

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