West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is switching parties to join Republicans as President Donald Trump plans a visit to the increasingly conservative state.
Justice's plans were confirmed to The Associated Press on Thursday by a Democratic Party official with knowledge of his plans. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the decision before the announcement.
NPR independenty confirmed Justice's switch with two sources.
The governor is expected to publicly announce his decision Thursday evening at a campaign rally with the president.
Justice was elected in November with just 49 percent of the vote, 20 percentage points behind Trump's total in the presidential contest in the state. Trump won 77 percent of West Virginia's Republican primary voters in May.
Justice's defection leaves Democrats with just 15 governors among 50 states.
West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael said he'd welcome Justice into the Republican Party.
"Apparently he's more comfortable in the party of small government," he said.
The West Virginia Republican Party has leveled a lot of criticism at Gov. Justice since he was elected. Most of the headlines on the party's website Thursday afternoon reflected that criticism.
Carmichael said any criticism of Justice still applies, regardless of the governor's party affiliation.
U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., who was outside the rally in Huntington Thursday before it started, also said he'd welcome Justice to the GOP.
West Virginia House Speaker Tim Armstead issued this statement via email:
"I'm glad the Governor has recognized that the bold, conservative principles of the Republican Party best represent the people of West Virginia and provide the best path forward to improve our state. That's why the Republican Party has seen the tremendous growth both in registration and elected representatives in recent years. The people of this state want change, and we welcome all West Virginians to the Republican ranks. The majority of the Legislature was elected on a platform of strong, Republican principles, and we hope the Governor embraces these principles as he joins our party."
“Jim Justice switching parties is totally unsurprising. I am surprised it took him this long to switch back. He’s always done only what he thinks is best for him—to heck with everybody else. It’s why I could not endorse him. This should be a huge wakeup call for the current leadership of the West Virginia Democratic Party. Character and integrity matter,” former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, who lost to Justice during the 2016 Democratic primary, said in an emailed statement.