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Presidential election sees high turnout in bitter race

WASHINGTON — Voter turnout was on pace to break historic records Tuesday as President Donald Trump awaited judgment in a presidential election widely seen as a referendum on his management of the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and race relations.

Early returns projected an especially close finish in Florida, with Trump overperforming his 2016 results in the vote-rich Miami area but Democratic nominee Joe Biden running more competitively elsewhere in the state.

There were signs of strength for Biden in other contested states, including in Georgia, Ohio and Texas, where early returns showed him overperforming in urban and suburban counties.

Biden wagered that legions of women and minority voters who recoiled from Trump’s divisive conduct in office would turn out in a resounding repudiation of the incumbent and bring an end to his tumultuous presidency.

Biden offered himself as a healer with the compassion and empathy he said was needed to usher in an era of civility and restore the soul of America. He sought to make history with Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his running mate. A daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, she was trying to become the country’s first female, first black and first Asian American to hold the No. 2 job.

Trump, meanwhile, hoped for another shock to the political system. He sought to overcome his deficit in the polls all year with an energetic final burst of campaigning in which he demonized Biden, embellished his record and promised an end to the pandemic and revitalize the economy.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the country, more than 100 million Americans voted early in person or by mail — by far a record — and overall turnout was expected to exceed the 136.7 million who voted in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Both candidates sounded notes of optimism Tuesday, but were anticipating close finishes in a handful of battleground states, including Pennsylvania, a new bellwether that both campaigns consider key in their paths to 270 electoral votes.

“Philly’s the key! Philly is the key!” Biden said as he thanked volunteers in Philadelphia, the state’s largest city, where he was hoping to drive up turnout among black voters and other Democrats to offset Trump’s rural strongholds.

Pennsylvania’s governor pleaded for patience Tuesday night as his state began counting votes in a contest that could take days to resolve.

“I encourage all of you to take a deep breath,” said Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf at a Tuesday night news conference. “What’s most important is that we have accurate results, and that each vote is counted.”

But even as he spoke, Republicans were filing suit to block the counting of votes, at least temporarily, by people who were allowed to correct mistakes on their mail-in ballots. Wolf’s plea also ran counter to President Donald Trump’s insistence — frequently expressed during the campaign’s waning days — that the country should know the results on election night.

That was never going to be possible in Pennsylvania, where state law prohibited any counting of absentee ballots until Tuesday morning. Several counties had already said they would not begin the process until Wednesday morning.

As of 10 p.m. Tuesday, about 15% of ballots had been counted statewide, but it was far too early to draw conclusions.

Trump won the state — and its 20 electoral votes — by less than 1% in 2016, a victory that helped propel him to the White House. An average of pre-election polls showed Biden with an advantage of about five points.

Biden and his campaign advisers have said carrying a trio of Rust Belt states Trump won in 2016 — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — would clinch a victory. But with Trump on the defensive in the closing days, the Biden campaign made a late push for a possible landslide that would include four states that traditionally lean Republican: Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.

“Look, you can’t think of an election in the recent past where so many states are up for grabs,” Biden said. “The idea I’m in play in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida — I mean, come on.”

Trump, his voice raspy from long days of addressing back-to-back outdoor rallies, sounded confident of victory in a morning interview but later was wistful and even downbeat as he visited with campaign staffers at their headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

“Winning is easy. Losing is never easy. Not for me, it’s not,” Trump said, making what for him is a rare public admission that he might not come out on top.

Also at stake in Tuesday’s elections was battle for control of both houses of Congress. Democrats were widely expected to maintain or even expand the House majority they secured in 2018, but Republican control of the Senate appeared in jeopardy.

In the case of a Biden victory, Democrats would need to net three seats to gain control of the upper chamber. Democrats were favored to oust GOP incumbent Sens. Cory Gardner in Colorado and Martha McSally in Arizona, while other Republican incumbents faced stiff challenges in Iowa, North Carolina, Maine, Montana, North Carolina and Texas.

In Georgia, both Republican senators faced well-financed Democratic opponents and the prospect of a January runoff if neither candidate secured 50% of the vote.

Republicans saw a couple opportunities to pick up Senate seats. Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama was at risk of losing his bid for reelection in a heavily Republican state, while Democrat Gary Peters in Michigan was fending off a spirited Republican challenge.

The election took place amid a once-in-a-century pandemic that has killed more than 232,000 people in the United States and upended the economy. The number of cases has surged across the country, including in many of the political battleground states, and public health experts have been warning that the spread could worsen heading into winter.

But Trump — whose handling of the crisis is a top reason he had trailed Biden in the polls for so many months — has been insisting on the campaign trail that the country is “rounding the curve” on the virus. The president also has been promising that a vaccine and various therapeutics will soon be widely available, which is more optimistic than the timelines provided by health officials.

Preliminary exit polls showed about a third of voters said the economy was the most important issue in their vote, while roughly 2 in 10 said the coronavirus or racial inequality. Smaller shares named crime or health-care policy, according to the polls, conducted by Edison Research.

Among Trump supporters, the most important issue was the economy, which about 6 in 10 named. Among Biden supporters, meanwhile, roughly a third said racial inequality was the most important issue to their vote while slightly fewer named the coronavirus pandemic.

The preliminary data showed voters nationally are divided about the state of the economy. Roughly half of voters rated it negatively, with about 2 in 10 voters rating the economy as “poor” — the lowest rating available to survey takers. About half of voters rated the economy positively, with about 1 in 10 calling it “excellent.”

In 2016, by contrast, exit polling found 62% of voters rated the economy negatively, with 21% rating it “poor.”

The early exit poll data also showed that voters are divided over whether U.S. efforts to contain the coronavirus were going “well” or “badly.”

In a trio of so-called “blue wall” Rust Belt states that Barack Obama carried in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns but Trump won in 2016 — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the economy rated as the top issue, with roughly a third of voters citing it as the issue that mattered most in their vote, according to preliminary exit polls.

In all three states, Trump voters were far more likely to cite the economy than Biden voters. Among Biden voters in all three states, roughly a third pointed instead to the coronavirus pandemic as their top issue.

In Florida, another hotly contested state, preliminary exit poll data revealed that emotions were running high among voters. About 2 in 3 Biden voters said they would be “scared” if Trump were to be reelected, while more than half of Trump voters said the same about the possibility of a Biden presidency.

Although preliminary exit polls showed more Latinos in Florida voted for Biden than Trump, Biden’s edge among this group was more modest than Hillary Clinton’s in 2016. Florida’s Cuban American voters backed Trump by a narrow majority, roughly similar to the pattern of support for Trump and Clinton among Cuban Americans in Florida four years ago. By comparison, Biden garnered the votes of roughly 7 in 10 Puerto Rican voters in Florida.

Also in Florida, black voters overwhelmingly backed Biden, with about 9 in 10 voting for the Democratic nominee, while Trump won about 6 in 10 white voters. And although voters age 65 and older clearly broke for Trump in the 2016 race, seniors were much more closely divided this year.

The outcome of the race carried especially high stakes for Trump, whose presidency has polarized the country with his assault on everything from undocumented immigration to the rule of law.

With a string of yet-to-be fulfilled promises and a number of national crises that have occurred on his watch, the president made a feverish effort to secure a second term and prevent his time in public office from ending in failure.

The president closed the campaign with a mad dash of boisterous rallies that defied public health guidelines and showcased the personal grievances he had amassed in spades over the past four years.

While Trump sought to drive home a message that despite being the incumbent president he was a political outsider with the tenacity to take on the establishment, he regularly drifted from his core pitch to court controversy. He accused doctors of profiteering from the coronavirus crisis by inflating the death count, declined multiple opportunities to disavow fringe right-wing groups, praised supporters for using pickup trucks to ambush a Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway, made baseless allegations of electoral fraud and threatened to fire the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci.

It was a distillation of a presidency that has spent four years catering to a political base that represents a minority of the public and stoking battles with an ever-growing list of foes.

Trump used his final frenzy of campaign rallies to defend his abrasive approach, telling his supporters he had no choice.

”They would say, ‘Jeez, they don’t like the personality, and he’s always fighting,’” Trump said Monday during a rally in Traverse City, Mich. “I’m fighting to survive. You have to survive. Very few people would have survived. They would have been in the corner.”

After campaigning as a dealmaker, Trump ultimately governed as a brawler. It left him with few legislative victories or bipartisan accomplishments.

While he launched his 2015 campaign promising to be “the greatest jobs president God ever made,” a loss Tuesday would all but ensure that he would be the first president since Herbert Hoover to leave office with fewer Americans employed than when he was sworn in. The 7.9% unemployment rate in October, while down from its pandemic high of more than 14%, is still significantly above the 4.7% rate in January 2017.

Throughout the campaign, Biden pitched himself to voters as a uniter who would usher in an era of civility, restore norms, repair foreign alliances and respect democratic institutions. His slogan, emblazoned on campaign buses signage and T-shirts, was, “restore the soul of the nation.”

Biden clinched the Democratic nomination for president in March just as the country began to shut down due to the coronavirus and quickly made the pandemic the centerpiece of his campaign message, pitching himself to voters as an experienced and competent leader who would listen to scientists and spend billions of dollars to juice the economy.

Biden kept a card with an updated COVID-19 death count with him at all times and deployed his own personal experience losing a wife, a daughter and a son to convey a sense of empathy that he said Trump lacked.

The Biden campaign often felt threadbare, with the candidate avoiding showmanship and making a point to elevate others in his party, including the former president under whom he served, Barack Obama.

Biden’s campaign reflected his desire to model best practices. Biden held no rallies, instead speaking before parking lots as supporters sat in their cars honked or spread out to socially distance.

Biden amped up his travel schedule in the last three weeks of the campaign, and started holding multiple events a day including more of car rallies, intended to bring supporters together without risking more COVID-19 infections.

During these trips he pitched his “Build Back Better” economic plan, a New Deal-like economic agenda designed to challenge Trump’s “America First” plans. Biden’s proposal would force a massive increase in federal purchases of U.S.-made goods, billions in new federal research funds and ending loopholes to “Buy American” laws.

But times Biden appeared rattled by Trump supporters who tried to disrupt is events. During a stop at the Minnesota state fairground last week he remarked on the protesters blowing air horns, calling them “ugly folks over there beeping the horns.”

Williams elected to unprecedented third term as Huntington mayor

HUNTINGTON — Huntington Mayor Steve Williams was elected to an unprecedented third term in office Tuesday, according to unofficial election results.

With all precincts reporting, the Democrat incumbent mayor tallied 8,575 votes to Republican challenger Scott Caserta’s 5,535, based on the number of votes counted as of 10:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Williams, 64, of Huntington, made an appearance at the Cabell County Courthouse late Tuesday night to thank Huntington voters.

“While there’s much we’ve accomplished, there is still much to be done,” he said. “I’m profoundly grateful to the voters of Huntington for giving me the chance to finish what we started eight years ago. I want to say a special word of thanks to my wife, Mary. Without her, I could not have done any of this. She’s my best friend, my most trusted adviser and my biggest cheerleader. I can’t imagine doing this without her in my corner.”

Caserta, 56, of Huntington, also thanked his supporters.

“We ran a very positive, clean race,” he said. “I could not be more proud of my supporters and the folks that helped out with the campaign.”

Caserta said he respected the outcome of the election.

“Huntington’s choice has been made,” he said. “I wish the mayor well and I wish Huntington well. My prayers will be with both.”

Williams said he will continue to focus on the city’s finances, crime and the coronavirus pandemic in his third term.

“My top concern is focusing on the pandemic and saving the lives of our residents,” he said. “This pandemic is putting everything that we are doing at risk. We can’t afford to let the disruption of the pandemic create long-term harm on what we have been able to build here. We will be talking to congressional representatives about additional relief for our businesses, as well as relief for state and local governments.”

Williams said before he was elected mayor in 2012, Huntington was laying off workers and having trouble paying its bills.

“Businesses were closing down and crime was on the rise,” he said. “Through hard work and creative thinking, we’ve been able to put our financial house in order and put our city back on the right track. We’ve fully funded employee pension plans, given our dedicated first responders a 24% pay raise, balanced the budget and cut taxes to encourage new investment, and Huntington is on the move again.”

Williams will officially begin his third term Jan. 1, 2021.

“I am ready to get back to work starting tomorrow,” he said. “I’m proud of my team at City Hall and of the residents of Huntington for working together to help make sure Huntington is always a place we’re proud to call home.”

Justice wins second term as governor in WV

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who has spent the spring, summer and fall anchoring televised state COVID-19 briefings, rode to a relatively easy re-election victory Tuesday, defeating Charleston lawyer Ben Salango, who was making his first run for statewide office.

Justice, elected governor in 2016 as a Democrat, won re-election Tuesday as a Republican, leading Salango by a roughly two-to-one margin, as part of a state GOP ticket led by President Donald Trump, who also easily carried the state.

At 10 p.m., Justice had a lead of 366,702 to 180,749 over Salango.

In a victory speech from his Greenbrier resort, Justice said he hoped Trump would go on to win re-election, but said, “My job is to work with anybody and everybody to do all I can to help you and help West Virginia.”

Justice said that while the job of governor is demanding, particularly during a pandemic, “I’ve always said it is an honor to be your governor, and tonight, it is even more of an honor.”

Justice told supporters shortly after 9:15 p.m. that he had promised to take the state on an economic rocket ship ride, and said there is a lot of the ride yet to come in the next term as he works to diversify the state economy.

“If you get in West Virginia’s way right now, West Virginia is going to run over your ass,” he said.

Salango conceded about 9 p.m., telling supporters at his Charleston campaign headquarters, “This election was never about me. It was always about the people of West Virginia … I got into this race because I wanted to fight for working families.”

Afterward, Salango said he felt that he ran a strong campaign, getting out to all parts of the state even in a pandemic to build name recognition, but could not overcome the headwinds of Trump’s popularity in the state.

“We knew Trump being on the ticket would be difficult for Democrats down-ballot,” he said.

Leading up to the election, a key issue for Salango was how to build name recognition when COVID-19 made conventional campaigning difficult to impossible. For Justice, 69, frequently criticized pre-pandemic for refusing to live in Charleston and accused of treating the governorship as a part-time position, the pandemic gave him a statewide forum in the form of daily, then tri-weekly COVID-19 briefings broadcast statewide on YouTube and on public television.

While intended to provide updates on state efforts to contain the spread of the virus, Justice used the briefings as an opportunity to appear gubernatorial, directing an initial shutdown of nonessential businesses and activities, then overseeing the gradual reopening of the state, a process he dubbed as “West Virginia Strong.”

Justice regularly delved into politics during the briefings, reminding viewers of his friendship with, and strong support for, Trump, and hurling barbs at Democrats, including Salango, whom he often referred to as a “Nancy Pelosi liberal.”

Justice also imbued the briefings with folksy, homespun homilies, something Salango said made Justice “the personification of the West Virginia stereotype.”

Salango has also criticized Justice for making multiple, and frequently confusing, tweaks to a color-coded COVID-19 risk map adopted from the Harvard Global Health Institute, and for failing to effectively distribute $1.25 billion of federal CARES Act funds to families and small businesses hard hit by the pandemic.

While $868 million of the $1.25 billion received in April remain unexpended, Justice has insisted all but $80 million is committed to projects and will be allocated by a Dec. 31 deadline imposed by Congress.

In addition to his handling of the pandemic, Justice has touted passage of a $2.8 billion road bond amendment and investments in public education, including two pay raises for public school teachers and service personnel — both of which followed statewide teacher walkouts.

In the only debate between the two candidates, Justice, a billionaire who made his fortune in coal, agriculture and hospitality businesses, said Salango’s background as a trial lawyer would be bad for business.

Noting that Justice’s businesses have been sued more than 600 times, Salango countered Justice had more courtroom experience than he does.

During the campaign, Salango contrasted his humble childhood in Beckley with Justice, who was born into a wealthy family.

Salango, pointing to successes as a Kanawha County commissioner — including his championing of the Shawnee Sports Complex in Institute — promised to diversify the state economy, promote small business, and expand infrastructure including broadband internet and highways.

In one campaign ad, Salango claimed Justice’s Roads to Prosperity program picked winners and losers — including repaving the road to The Greenbrier resort, an allegation Justice denied.

Justice, meanwhile, made the case he is a businessman, not a politician, and that he has been able to take a state that was facing massive budget deficits when he took office, and get the economy, and the state budget, in the black.

Justice, a lifelong Republican, changed his party affiliation to Democrat for his 2016 gubernatorial campaign, then announced he was switching back at a Trump rally in Huntington, telling the crowd, “I can’t help you anymore being a Democrat governor.”

In recent weeks, Justice has touted a series of business announcements, including the selection of a West Virginia site for the Virgin Hyperloop test project.

In the debate, both candidates said they favor passage of the Fairness Act, which would extend the state’s housing and employment non-discrimination statute to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

The bill has failed to win passage in the Legislature multiple times, most recently in the 2020 regular session.

Also seeking the office were Liberterian Erika Kolenich, a Buckhannon lawyer (16,632 votes); Mountain Party candidate Danny Lutz, a conservation district supervisor from Jefferson County (6,670 votes); and Del. Marshall Wilson, I-Berkeley, who ran as a write-in candidate.

Wilson’s supporters made headlines in September, when they refused to wear face masks in the state Capitol in order to attend a Constitution Day ceremony Wilson was hosting in House chambers and were ordered to leave the premises.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.