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.
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.
The president promised throughout the campaign to resurrect the lagging coal industry that has declined amid changing energy markets, leaving many West Virginia communities devastated. The industry and many of its workers have blamed the decline mostly on former President Barack Obama and his environmental policies.
Justice's defection leaves Democrats with just 15 governors among 50 states.
In West Virginia, his jump is another blow for Democrats in a state they once ran without opposition. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and state Treasurer John Perdue will be the remaining statewide elected Democrats. Manchin is up for re-election in 2018, one of 10 Democratic senators running in states Trump won, a dynamic that gives Democrats an uphill path to reclaiming a Senate majority.
Elected in his first run for statewide office, Justice is a 66-year-old businessman whose family owns farms and coal mines who largely funded his own campaign against then West Virginia Republican Senate President Bill Cole. He has spoken often during the campaign and since publicly about his friendship with the Trump family and hosted Donald Trump Jr. turkey hunting and trout fishing earlier this year.
Justice has turned the daily business operations over to his children while governor. He battled the Republican-controlled Legislature in his first year to limit budget cuts to Medicaid and to state colleges and universities, sometimes with public theatrics like bringing cow manure to a press conference.
"We're eager to work with Gov. Justice to apply our team's conservative principles to the executive branch and make a clean break from the status quo that has dominated the previous two administrations," Senate President Mitch Carmichael said.
Republican House Speaker Tim Armstead said the increases in Republican registration and elected officials show people in the state want change. "We welcome all West Virginians to the Republican ranks," he said.
In the national debate over health care, Justice expressed worries about future health coverage for 175,000 West Virginians in the expanded Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, but declined to push to repeal and replace "Obamacare." He said he believes Republicans and Democrats will "get it right" when they work together to overhaul the law.
Rep. Evan Jenkins, who switched from Democrat to Republican and won a U.S. House seat in 2014, said at a meet-and-greet in Huntington before the rally that "so many people in recent years have switched from Democrat to Republican, and if Jim Justice is making the switch, I welcome him to the Republican Party."
Jenkins is now running for Manchin's seat.
In May 2015, when he announced his candidacy, Justice said he wanted to put aside partisan politics and that he had changed his party registration multiple times. "I am much more suited to be a Democrat because I truly want to be the person who is trying to take up for the little guy," he said.
Associated Press writers Michael Virtanen in Morgantown, John Raby in Huntington and Jonathan Mattise in Nashville contributed to this report.