- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

BLUEFIELD, W.Va. (AP) - Standing beside his family at his car dealership, Republican state Senate President Bill Cole touted himself as a job creator while kicking off a bid for West Virginia governor on Tuesday.

The Mercer County lawmaker became the first Republican front-runner officially vying for governor. The announcement also keeps the fifth-generation businessman on an ambitious political fast-track. He owns dealerships in West Virginia and Kentucky.

“I believe my lifelong experience in business, as well as my accomplishments as Senate president, give me a unique opportunity to lead our state in a new direction,” Cole said.

Cole’s announcement also partly cleared up what had been a fuzzy picture of Republicans interested in the race. Right after Cole said Monday that his announcement was forthcoming, Republican U.S. Rep. David McKinley dropped out as a possible contender.

Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who still says he’s seriously considering a run for governor, remains a big question mark for the GOP.

Plenty of attention and cash will be involved in the open seat, which Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is leaving because he is approaching a limit of two consecutive terms.

Cole just wrapped up his first year as Senate president and is in his first four-year term as a state senator. He has been in politics for about five years and has won only one election. He said that’s a positive because career politicians haven’t gotten the job done.

Then-Gov. Joe Manchin, now a Democratic U.S. senator, first appointed Cole to fill an opening in the House of Delegates in 2010. Cole followed up by clinching a southern West Virginia Senate seat in the 2012 election. He serves all of Mercer County and parts of Mingo, McDowell and Wayne counties.

After droves of Republicans won in the 2014 election - and one Democrat flipped to Republican - the GOP improbably snagged control of a state Senate that previously favored Democrats 24-10. Cole took the helm as president of a legislative chamber that gave Republicans a slim 18-16 advantage. Republicans also flipped the state House, giving the GOP its first legislative majorities in more than eight decades.

In Cole’s first session in charge, his majority party said it made a better climate for business by peeling back - but generally not deleting - some state laws: a variety of legal protections, storage tank regulations to prevent chemical spills, coal mining safety and environmental standards, and the state’s prevailing wage for public construction projects.

Some Democrats worried about safety, construction jobs and preserving legal protections in the courtroom; still, others crossed party lines to support the peel-backs.

Other measures died in the session’s waning days, including a repeal of the Common Core educational standards and the phase-in of charter schools. Cole said Tuesday that West Virginia needs its own standards to replace Common Core.

On Tuesday, Cole generally called for less regulation, for tax reform, and for investments in education, high-speed Internet and infrastructure.

Because he’s up for Senate re-election in 2016, Cole leaves his seat and the presidency open in 2017 by running for governor. He said can juggle the governor’s race and the Senate presidency during the 60-day legislative session starting in January.

On the Democratic side, billionaire businessman Jim Justice has already kicked off a campaign. State Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler also is officially in the race.

Cole and Justice have both said they’d put some of their own money into their campaigns. Morrisey already has loaned his undeclared campaign account $250,000.

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