CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s Republican candidate for governor admits he didn’t help himself by ending straight-ticket voting, which could have let him ride Donald Trump’s coattails into office in a state where the GOP presidential nominee remains popular.
As the state Senate’s new president two years ago, following eight decades of Democratic control, Bill Cole made the bill to end straight-ticket voting a priority.
“I’m not going to lie to you: I wish I had waited two years, because I think a straight ticket with Donald Trump at the top, and his continued high popularity in this state, might have made my life a lot easier,” Cole said. “But it was the right thing to do.”
Under the straight-ticket system, voters could pull one lever to choose the party’s candidate on top and automatically select all the other party nominees, straight down the line.
“It truly was the incumbent protection plan,” Cole said.
But here in Trump country, where Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is widely viewed as a threat to the struggling coal industry, straight-ticket voters could have been GOP gold.
Ten other states still offer straight-ticket voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Michigan, where the legislature’s decision to abolish it has been held back by a court challenge.
As Senate president, Cole helped engineer other major changes in West Virginia: limiting abortions and court damage claims, ending union closed shops, eliminating mandatory concealed pistol permit requirements and overturning a plan to force power plants to begin using alternative fuels.
But instead of coasting back into Senate leadership, Cole faces a challenger: well-known businessman Jim Justice, who last year declared himself a Democrat for his first run at public office. The owner of coal mines, farms and the Greenbrier resort, Justice, 65, has the backing of the United Mine Workers of America, the state Farm Bureau and the West Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association. He has spent $2.6 million of his own money on the race.
The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce supports Cole. He has also loaned at least $500,000 to his campaign and paid other in-kind expenses. The governor’s salary is $150,000 a year.
Cole, the 60-year-old owner of three car dealerships that employ some 400 people, saw the mandatory exit of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin after two terms as an opportunity to also remove administrative regulation and further support the free market.
He said that’s critical to West Virginia’s economic comeback from the decline in coal mining.
Cole wants to remove the state’s severance tax, to help the timber business, and he sees room to grow agriculture.
He sees a future in coal, buoyed by new technology to cut pollution, and in the state’s underground natural gas reserves. Cole acknowledged concerns about global warming, but said the U.S. alone can’t address those global concerns. He said as governor he will focus on West Virginia.
The fourth-generation West Virginia native doesn’t endorse everything Trump has said, but he’s supporting the GOP presidential candidate “steadfastly.” Trump won the West Virginia Republican primary with 77 percent or about 156,000 votes — nearly double Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s roughly 86,000 and about 30,000 more than Sen. Bernie Sanders received when he defeated Clinton in the state’s Democratic primary.
Trump has been widely criticized for a decade-old recording in which he boasted about groping women and kissing them uninvited. With national polls showing him trailing, Trump has repeatedly told supporters that the election system is “rigged.”
Cole distanced himself from both comments but not from the man himself.
“I don’t condone what he said. … I have teenage daughters. It just wasn’t acceptable,” Cole said. “Having said that, when you consider the alternative, there’s no logical choice other than to be firmly behind Trump. Hillary’s on the record as saying, quote, if you’re a coal miner or a coal company we’ll put you out of business.”
Trump has called the Obama administration’s environmental regulation “war on coal” that’s killing jobs and making the U.S. more energy dependent.
Cole said Clinton’s presidential nomination over Sanders could be seen as rigged because of the influence the Democratic Party machine exerted on her behalf.
“We’ve certainly had a history in West Virginia of irregularities at the polls, whether it’s dead people voting or more people voting in a county than reside in the county … And I think we all worked to clean it up,” Cole said. Still, he said he wouldn’t call the system rigged and added, “I’m hesitant to question our founding fathers and smart people who’ve come after them because we have managed to grow the greatest country that this world has ever seen.”