CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Billionaire Jim Justice won the Democratic nomination for West Virginia governor, holding off challenges from two other candidates Tuesday.
Justice defeated former U.S. attorney Booth Goodwin and Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler and will face Republican state Senate President Bill Cole in November. Cole had no opposition in the GOP primary.
According to unofficial returns, Justice had about 51 percent of the vote to 27 percent for Goodwin and 23 percent for Kessler.
Justice spent $2.1 million before the primary and had at least a seven-fold money advantage, pouring in about $2 million of his own money and $683,700 in donations. A theme of his advertising has been reviving The Greenbrier resort, which he bought out of bankruptcy in 2009 in southern West Virginia.
The 65-year-old Justice said his candidacy wasn’t about personal gain, status, ego or money, and that he was the only candidate equipped to beat Cole, a Bluefield car dealer. The Republican Governors Association has spent $600,000 on TV ads to boost Cole’s name recognition.
During a speech Tuesday night at The Greenbrier resort, Justice reiterated his commitment to doing everything he could for the state.
“Now we’ve got a mission,” he told a cheering crowd. “Now we’ve got a real direction. We’ve got a mountain to climb. But we’re going to climb it. We’re going to absolutely go over it like an avalanche coming down the other side.”
Justice immediately went on the offensive, referring to Cole as “another politician” and noting that the Legislature still hasn’t passed a budget for next fiscal year.
Cole campaign spokesman Kent Gates said Cole congratulated Justice on his win and invited the billionaire businessman to join him in a series of debates across the state.
Cole said earlier that regardless of his opponent, he believed his general election campaign was about delivering a message to bring more jobs to West Virginia and become a “true salesman of the state.”
During the campaign, Justice criticized higher taxes and big budget cuts, saying he believed more jobs will help troubled state coffers. He’s the most optimistic candidate about coal bouncing back, despite contrary economic forecasts. He wants West Virginia power plants to use more of the state’s coal.
Charleston retiree Dorothy Burford, 81, voted for Justice, saying she believes he’s “top notch for governor. He even said he wouldn’t take a salary.”
The businessman was criticized for being delinquent on millions of dollars in bills, taxes and mine safety fines at his companies. He has promised to pay all his debts and says he could have taken a coward’s way out through bankruptcy, but didn’t.
Justice was the only Democrat in the field to cast doubt on mankind’s contribution to global warming.
West Virginia Democrats splintered in three directions for governor after a 2014 election in which the party lost control of the Legislature for the first time in more than eight decades.
Justice, a former Republican, is a conservative Democrat backed by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s only Democrat in Congress.
Goodwin charted a moderate path as a member of a politically influential family with support from former U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller and ex-Gov. Bob Wise.
Goodwin landed the conviction last year of ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship on charges related to mine safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 men died in a 2010 explosion.
Kessler, the progressive option, was the only candidate directly calling for higher taxes to shore up the state’s finances and the only candidate to endorse anyone for president: He favored Bernie Sanders.