Next Tuesday a guberntorial election will occur in heavily conservative and Democratic West Virginia that will test the president’s down-ballot drag on his party’s candidates for statewide office. West Virginia is in interesting test for the simple fact voters in the state retain their Democratic tilt at the state level but have not voted for a Democratic president since 1996.  In 2008 West Virginia went heavily for John McCain.  And finally, President Obama’s approval in the state (according to Gallup) is at a horrible 33%.  In 2010 the GOP ran competively for a vacant Senate seat and captured two of three House seats in the state.

This election has an interesting background.  West Virginia holds its guberntorial elections every 4 years (in presidential years).  But in 2010 long-time US Senator Robert Byrd (D) died.  This vacancy caused popular West Virginian Governor Joe Manchin to try and run for the open Senate seat.  After some wrangling in the Democratic controlled state legislature they decided to have an election to fill the seat (not have the Governor appoint himself, which he did have the power to do).  Manchin easily won the primary and won the general election essentially as an anti-Obama Democrat.  This personifies many Democratic voters in the state.

But the saga does not end there.   West Virginia does not have a Lt. Governor so the man that replaced Manchin was State Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin.  Democrats did not want to have to have an election to replace Manchin until 2012 but the Wrst Virginia Court of Appeals in early January dashed those hopes.  The ruling made clear the state had to hold an election by November 15th (the legislature made it October 4th), giving the state one year from the time Manchin left office to make accomodations.  Tomblin won with 40% of the vote.  His stiffest challenge came from another Democratic leader in Speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates Rick Thompson.

The state GOP exuberant had a shallow bench to start from.  Their best candidates, 2010 WV-1 winner David McKinley and WV-2 Representative Shelley Moore Capito decline to run.  Eventually the GOP field of candidates resembled a whos-who of businessmen and former/current state officials.  In the end it was a little known businessman, Bill Maloney, who won the primary with 45%.  His stiffest challenge came from former Secretary of State Betty Ireland who took 30% of the vote.

Tombin’s intention was simply to cruise to the finish line by playing off Manchin’s popularity but the appeal of Maloney as a candidate and national issues injecting themselves into the race has changed that late in the race.  As early as May when the primary ended Tomblin held a 33 point lead according to a PPP survey.  But in early September the same surveyer found Tomblin leading by a narrow six points.  Though popular, Tomblin is failing to get 15% of undecided Democrats and is losing 23% of Democrats to Maloney.  Maloney is winning Independents and Democrats overwhelmingly.

Maloney and Tomblin have both heavily focused on proving their conservative bona-fides.  Both have pointed to their records of fiscal stewardship and responbility.  But Maloney, an outsider, has played that card well.  A small business owner, he built his business from scratch.  Tomblin on the other hand comes from a politically connected family.

To the extent national issues have infringed on the race both Tomblin and Maloney have made their disapproval of the president abundantly clear.  Tomblin is even reported as saying at a campaign event “I voted for John McCain.”  Even so, if the PPP survey in early September is any indication, Tomblin is being dragged down to an extent by the president. 

Maloney has moved hard in the last few weeks to try and paint Tomblin as nothing more than an Obama-Democrat.  Helped by the Republican Governor’s Association he has gambled on hitting Tomblin late in the race, paint a picture of him in voters minds, and hopefully turning them to the alternative.  But that is easier said than done.  Late in races it is harder to paint a narrative of a candidate, even among unengaged or undecided voters.  And then we have to consider the context of the race.  This is an off-year special election to only serve 1 year.  Then in 2012 another guberntorial election will be held.  It is also likely to drag out the most partisan Republican and Democratic voters.  But in WV partisan Democrats do not always vote Democrat, adding another twist to the race.

 The RGA has dumped over $770,000 into the off-year special election race and the Democratic Governor’s Association has dumped over $630,000.  Tomblin has won the endorsement race with endorsements from the AFL-CIO, Chamber of Commerce and National Rifle Association.  These same groups backed then Governor Joe Manchin in his successful 2010 bid.  But this election could be shaping up to be something different.

How this race turns out is anybodys guess?  It is an off-year special election with two candidates who both appeal to conservative West Virginian voters.  The RGA and DGA have dumped money and organizers into the state.  The latest polls show the race neck and neck.  But one thing is clear.  However this race turns out at the end of Tuesday night (October 4th) the winner will have to campaign again within a year to hold onto his seat.  And it is likely to be against the president regardless of which party holds the governor’s mansion.

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