West Virginia governor announces he's switching parties at Trump rally

Democratic Governor of West Virginia Jim Justice announced he is switching to the Republican Party at President Donald Trump’s rally in his state on Thursday evening.

"Today, I tell you as West Virginians, I can't help you anymore being a Democrat governor," said Justice. "So tomorrow, I will be changing my registration to Republican."

Earlier in the day, Trump teased a “big announcement” at the event in Huntington, West Virginia. Thursday night, he praised the 6-foot-7-inch governor he nicknamed "Big Jim" for "show[ing] the country our agenda rises above left or right."

News of Justice’s plans, which were first reported by The New York Times, surprised Republicans and Democrats alike in West Virginia. Prior to the news, the West Virginia GOP had even published an ill-timed tweet attacking Justice for being “low-energy.”

But in a statement obtained by ABC News earlier today, the West Virginia GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas said, “We look forward to Governor Justice reflecting the conservative values of our Party and platform.”

Lucas added to ABC News, “The rumors about Justice switching parties had been percolating since the legislative session. This wasn’t a new rumor for us at all.”

This is not the first time Justice has switched parties -- he was a registered Republican before switching to the Democratic Party prior to his gubernatorial run in 2015.

Justice, who made his fortune in the coal industry, refused to endorse Hillary Clinton in the general election and has been a vocal supporter of Trump’s backing of West Virginia and coal miners. But Justice’s involvement in the coal industry has also made headlines as he’s faced accusations of not paying the bills. The Associated Press reported that Justice’s coal businesses owed millions in unpaid West Virginia state taxes last year.

While Gov. Scott Walker of the Republican Governors Association said in a statement, "We’re thrilled that Governor Jim Justice wants to join our efforts," the Democratic Governors Association was quick to denounce Justice's decision. In a statement, DGA Executive Director Elizabeth Pearson claimed Justice deceived West Virginians with his party affiliation and joined the GOP for financial gains.

“Jim Justice deceived the voters of West Virginia when he ran as a Democrat eight months ago," said Pearson.

She added, "As Republicans have repeatedly said, Jim Justice owes millions of dollars in unpaid company taxes, after a deal with a Russian coal company. The debts have only worsened during Justice’s term as governor. If President Trump cut a deal, we hope it does not put U.S. taxpayers on the hook to bail out Jim Justice’s personal finances.”

In many ways, Justice and Trump have a lot in common. Justice is the only billionaire in the state, owns a luxury resort -- the Greenbrier -- that is home to a PGA tournament, and he counts celebrities and professional athletes as friends. Lionel Ritchie performed at his inauguration party in January.

Justice is also close to the Trump family -- he went fishing at hunting at his property in West Virginia with Donald Trump Jr. in May.

And despite Trump’s low approval ratings nationally, he remains popular in West Virginia with an approval rating of 60 percent, according to Gallup. Sixty-nine percent of the state voted for Trump in November -- with all 55 counties in West Virginia voting for the billionaire from Manhattan.

With Justice's departure from the party, Democrats will now only hold 15 statehouses across the country.

© 2017 ABC News


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