Open Season

With Manchin out of the way, West Virginia’s 2016 governor’s race is getting interesting.

Written by Zack Harold

For as long as there’s been talk about the 2016 governor’s race, much of that talk has centered around one very interesting rumor—that former governor and current U.S. Senator Joe Manchin would attempt to leave Capitol Hill and reclaim his old job. Manchin did his part to stoke rumors of his return, mentioning to several reporters he was seriously considering another gubernatorial campaign.

But he ultimately quashed the speculation with an April 19 appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation, where he told host Bob Schieffer he would not run for governor next year. In a conference call with West Virginia reporters the next day, Manchin said it was a “tough decision” but he ultimately decided he could help West Virginia more from his seat in Congress. “We live in a challenged world and we live in a divided country,” he said. “It’s going to take people in the middle. And I think I’m squarely planted in the middle. People like myself are in demand to fix things.”

Manchin’s decision might have helped the state in more ways than one. With him out of the picture, the 2016 governor’s race is now wide open—and things are getting interesting. “There’s probably any number of people who might consider entering the race. Senator Manchin was a heavyweight candidate and might have scared certain people out,” says Chris Regan, vice chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party.

As this magazine goes to print, State Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler is the only candidate that has taken steps toward a gubernatorial campaign. Although Kessler says he has not made a final decision about whether or not to run, he filed pre-candidacy papers in late March to begin fundraising. There are plenty of other potential candidates, too. Among Democrats, Greenbrier owner Jim Justice told reporters in April he was considering a campaign. Wheeling attorney Ralph Baxter is another rumored candidate, as is West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick. But there’s one name that comes up in almost every conversation about the 2016 governor’s race: U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin.

Goodwin has become a darling of the party after tackling political corruption in Mingo County, going after drug traffickers, and, late last year, indicting former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for charges related to the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster. Goodwin has not spoken publicly about his future political intentions, however—he isn’t allowed.

According to the U.S. Hatch Act, federal employees are forbidden from running in partisan elections. If Goodwin were to run for office, he would have to leave his job. “This is an office that has to remain above the fray. I can’t delve into politics,” he says. “People have approached me about it. It’s not an option. I can’t run for political office from this job.”

On the Republican side, three names keep coming up: U.S. Representative David McKinley, State Senate President Bill Cole, and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. “There are paths to victory for any of those gentlemen,” says state Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas.

McKinley has repeatedly said he is “considering” a run for governor, but that’s as specific as he will get at this point. Cole and Morrisey are still making up their minds, too. All three men are up for re-election next year—Kessler is, too—so they must choose between trying to keep their current jobs or getting a new one. “No fall back. No free run,” Cole says. The senate president says he is giving the governor’s race “very serious consideration” but must decide how a campaign would affect his family and his business, as well as his work in the upper chamber. “Public service is an interesting thing. The deeper I’ve gotten into it, the more it tends to consume (me),” Cole says.

Morrisey says he is waiting to see who else might jump into the governor’s race before making a decision. “If there is another candidate out there that supports the same ideas I do, I would get behind that person,” he says. “We’ve put some of the infrastructure in place to prepare for a statewide race, whatever that race might be.”

He has plenty of time to figure it out. Candidates won’t be able to file for the May 2016 primary election until next January. And by then, who knows what the ballot will look like?


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