West Virginia Election More Molehill Than Mountain

by Nathan L. Gonzales October 4, 2011 · 10:46 AM EDT

After two September special election losses, Democrats are looking for a slice of good news. But what smelled like Democratic victory in West Virginia just a week ago is now far from certain, and even a win in today's gubernatorial contest shouldn't provide much solace to Democrats nationwide.

No matter which party wins, political strategists will have to resist building the results into a mountain from a molehill.

Throughout the summer and into the fall, acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) led wealthy businessman Bill Maloney (R) in a race distinguished by its lack of movement and activity. One GOP strategist described it as one of the "sleepiest races" he'd ever seen.

But in the final days of the contest opened by Joe Manchin's election to the Senate, Republicans tried to tie Tomblin to President Barack Obama, Maloney was plagued by extortion headlines and a final poll showed the race in a dead heat.

The Democratic Public Policy Polling survey, conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 2, showed Tomblin with a statistically insignificant edge over Maloney, 47 percent to 46 percent. If correct, the poll is significant because previous public and private surveys showed Tomblin with a lead, even though there were a high number of undecided voters.

Because Tomblin weathered GOP attacks on his personal record, the Republican Governors Association decided to make a last-minute grab for the undecideds with a television ad that accused him of implementing "Obamacare" while other governors across the country fought the president's legislation.

Whether it was the connection to Obama (who is deeply unpopular in the state) or the fact that the RGA went on the air unanswered in the expensive Washington, D.C., media market covering approximately 15 percent of the West Virginia electorate for a week, it appears that the ad changed the race's trajectory.

"This is a special election where momentum is critical," RGA Executive Director Phil Cox told Roll Call. "And momentum is clearly on our side."

PPP showed Tomblin with a 15-point lead in May and a 6-point advantage a month ago. The latest poll is significant because approximately half of the interviews were conducted after Democrats tried to implicate the Maloney campaign in an extortion case that broke on Friday.

Up until the final week, spending on both sides was fairly even. But since this year's other gubernatorial contests are a combination of long shots (Mississippi), no shots (Louisiana) and not happening (Kentucky), the RGA had some extra money to spend in the Mountain State.

On one level, the race looked more promising for Republicans. They were challenging a career politician who has been in office for more than 30 years with a wealthy businessman who had a good story to tell. With a background in the mining industry, Maloney helped craft the plan that rescued the Chilean miners last year.

Obama's West Virginia job approval rating was just 28 percent, compared with 63 percent that disapproved in the PPP poll. That's why Tomblin countered the final RGA attacks with an endorsement ad featuring Manchin, who remains popular with a 61 percent job approval rating in the PPP survey, including a majority of Republicans.

Republicans believed there was an opportunity to define the governor because he lacked Manchin's name recognition and definition as an independent West Virginia Democrat instead of as a national Democrat. But GOP strategists believe Tomblin may actually be benefiting from the anger toward Washington, D.C., because, in comparison, the state looks better. Tomblin's job rating in the PPP survey showed that 44 percent of those surveyed approve and 32 percent disapprove of his performance.

Some GOP strategists also admit that their own candidate lacks name recognition and definition. Democrats painted Maloney as an out-of-touch millionaire, which appears to have dented the Republican's outsider armor. Maloney had a decent 44 percent favorable to 33 percent unfavorable rating, but Republicans aren't sure he's reached the threshold of credibility with enough voters to defeat Tomblin.

The good news for Democrats is that if Tomblin prevails, it will be because he effectively localized the race. But that's also the bad news for Democrats. Tomblin garnered endorsements from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, organized labor, the National Rifle Association and a primary endorsement from West Virginia Right to Life. Democrats elsewhere will be hard-pressed to put together a similar coalition.

A Democratic victory in West Virginia wouldn't nullify Obama's negative impact on Democratic candidates; it would just mean that Tomblin had done enough to insulate himself from the president's radioactive numbers.

Even if Maloney comes up short, Cox and the Republicans view their spending as a down payment on a two-year campaign. This election is only for the remainder of Manchin's term, and Tomblin would be up again in 2012. Manchin also will be on the ballot then for a full six-year Senate term.

There has been some talk that a close loss by Maloney would credential him to challenge Manchin in next year's Senate race. But given Manchin's popularity, that's not going to happen, according to sources closer to Maloney than the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

West Virginia will have other competitive races next year and should be a fascinating exercise in ticket-splitting. The GOP presidential nominee will likely defeat Obama handily while Manchin cruises to re-election. Roll Call Politics rates the Senate race as Leans Democratic.

Voters will likely be faced with another competitive gubernatorial contest as well as a competitive race for the 1st district, with a rematch between Rep. David McKinley (R) and former state Sen. Mike Oliverio (D).