Earl Ray Tomblin Has Inside Track in Race for Governor of West Virginia

Until recently, Earl Ray Tomblin was not a household name in West Virginia. He had spent 36 years in the state legislature, half of them heading the state Senate, but few people beyond the Capitol grounds in Charleston even knew who the 59-year-old Democrat was.
That has changed in a hurry. After a tumultuous chain of events beginning with the death of U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, Tomblin now occupies the governor's office. Despite facing some of the best-known names in West Virginia politics in a primary election this Saturday, it looks as if he may get to hold on to the job for at least another year.
"It's a brand new experience with a very old politician," says political science professor Robert Rupp of West Virginia Wesleyan College. "He has taken the title and is acting as if he's the incumbent."
It is an act that seems to be working. Besides his temporary incumbency, Tomblin has the money and the contacts from his long career in state politics to help him win. He is finally achieving the one thing he has never sought nor possessed: visibility.
But Saturday's election is an aberration in many ways, making predictions especially tricky. Among the complications are a free-for-all among well-known rivals, a split among interest groups and the likelihood of a very low turnout.
Diverse field
Although West Virginia has voted for Republicans in the past three presidential contests, Democrats dominate statewide politics. There are twice as many registered Democratic voters as Republicans, and Democrats hold all the major offices in state government.
They have maintained their dominance by being a "big tent" party that includes people of different ideological beliefs. Democrats in West Virginia tend to be more conservative than Democrats in other eastern states. And among the candidates for governor, Tomblin is viewed as the most conservative of all. He opposes abortion rights, is friendly to power companies and has earned the backing of coal producers.
After only a few months in office, Tomblin has increased his lead over his nearest rival from only 1 percentage point to 16 points, says Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, which conducted polls in January and April.
That said, in Jensen's latest survey, 32 percent of likely Democratic voters say they would support Tomblin, not usually a good showing for an incumbent. But with support for the three other major candidates nearly evenly divided, Jensen says, Tomblin would seem to be close to the number he needs. He could still lose the primary if voters coalesce around one of his rivals at the last minute, but the field of candidates is so ideologically varied that such a scenario seems highly unlikely, if not impossible. "He would really have to somehow collapse to not end up winning it," Jensen says.
In recent days, Tomblin has come under fire for his many connections to the gambling industry. State Treasurer John Perdue has been running TV spots blasting Tomblin for helping his family's greyhound breeding business receive more than $2 million in state subsidies and for pushing through recent legislation that would direct $10 million of lottery money each year to help casinos upgrade their facilities.
House Speaker Rick Thompson, who has the backing of most of the state's labor unions, recently began running attack ads of his own that criticize Tomblin's record on worker's issues. And Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, the only Democrat running who supports abortion rights, has secured the endorsement of the national pro-choice group Emily's List . The man who succeeded Tomblin as Senate president, Jeff Kessler, is also in the race, and asserts that Tomblin is claiming credit for a variety of accomplishments that Kessler himself deserves credit for.
Tomblin's response to the criticism has been to run advertisements insisting that the other candidates "should be ashamed for their attacks." The spots tout Tomblin's many endorsements, especially from newspaper editorial boards.
Eight candidates are vying for the Republican nomination, but most of the attention has focused on two: former Secretary of State Betty Ireland and businessman Bill Maloney, known for his role in helping the rescue of the trapped Chilean miners last year. Ireland is better-known and was leading in early polls, but Maloney has tried to appeal to the party's conservative base. The April poll showed more than a quarter of Republican voters undecided. Whoever wins the Republican primary will be a distinct underdog in the October general election.
An unusual election
Normally, West Virginia would not even have a contest for governor this year. But Tomblin took over as acting governor once his predecessor, Joe Manchin, left to succeed Byrd as U.S. senator. The state Supreme Court ruled ( PDF ) in January that Tomblin could not serve as West Virginia's acting governor for more than a year, setting off a scramble to hold an election in 2011.
It was not until early February that legislators set dates for this Saturday's primary and the general election in October. The winner will take on the duties of office for 14 months, until the regular general election is held in November of 2012. The campaign for next year will begin almost immediately after this one ends.
The timing of the election — in the middle of a term, when no other terms for political officeholders expire — is one factor that has brought out the large number of serious candidates. High officeholders can run for governor without giving up the positions they already have.
It is also a good time to be governor of West Virginia, at least compared to being governor of many other states. The budget is in pretty good shape and scandal has not rocked the capital recently. All these things, says Rupp, "explain why all the politicians want to be governor. The accidental election says they can do it risk-free."

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