Republicans Push for Upset in West Virginia

 

The best chance for Republicans to add another governorship to their column this year — after taking over nine statehouses last year — will be on Tuesday (Oct. 4) in West Virginia, where Democrats dominate state government but where the GOP is mounting a strong challenge.

The Republican candidate is Bill Maloney, a longtime drilling company executive who has never run for office before. Maloney, 53, is hoping to oust Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin, the 59-year-old incumbent. Even though Tomblin has been a fixture in Charleston and a legislative power broker for decades, he assumed the governorship only last November, when he replaced the U.S. Senate-bound Joe Manchin.

Republicans do not win most offices in West Virginia. Every statewide office holder is a Democrat, including the state's two U.S. senators. Democrats hold two out of every three seats in the House of Delegates, and more than four out of every five seats in the state Senate. There are twice as many registered Democratic voters in the state as Republicans.

But the GOP sees reasons to hope. West Virginia has elected Republican governors four times in the last half-century, and more to the point, has supported Republican presidential candidates the last three times in a row. Its U.S. House members are split, two Republicans to one Democrat. And Maloney, according to polls released by Democratic pollsters, is trailing Tomblin by only 6 to 10 percentage points.

"What (this election) really does is put pressure on the Democrats," says Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association. "If they lose, it would be a big deal. And if they don't, then, it's West Virginia."

But Elisabeth Smith, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association, says the Republican interest in the state has a lot to do with the fact that the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Kentucky is trailing badly. The Republicans, she says, are redirecting their money and their attention to West Virginia because they cannot win Kentucky.

Outside interests

Whatever the reason, national Republicans have weighed in heavily in the West Virginia race, as have, to a lesser extent, their Democratic adversaries. Combining national money with the campaigns themselves, Republicans have outspent Democrats in the contest $5.7 million to $5.1 million, according to the secretary of state's office. The outside money has helped to negate Tomblin's connections as a long-time political operator, which have enabled him to outraise Maloney head-to head.

Tomblin has the advantage of his close relationship to the popular Manchin, who retains considerable influence in the state. The two men recently filmed a commercial together. Tomblin also touts endorsements by business groups, labor unions and newspaper editorial boards.

The big question may be whether Tomblin's long career in West Virginia politics can be used against him in a year of anti-incumbent sentiment. Schrimpf, of the Republican Governors Association, thinks it can.

"Bill Maloney is the perfect contrast to Earl Ray Tomblin," he says. "Earl Ray Tomblin is what epitomizes the status quo in West Virginia politics. He's been Senate president for more than 15 years; he's been in the Legislature more than 36 years. Bill Maloney is an outsider, a businessman who doesn't really have any ties to the local establishment in West Virginia." Maloney, who sold his drilling company five years ago, is best-known for helping to come up with a plan to rescue 33 trapped Chilean miners last year.

The contest between the two is for just one year in office. Whoever wins on Tuesday will have to run for a full term in 2012.

But the governor's race in West Virginia is the country's most competitive this year. So far, campaigns in the other states holding gubernatorial elections — Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi — appear to be lopsided affairs.

Kentucky's Steve Beshear, a Democrat, was up by 27 points in one recent poll and even skipped a debate against his challengers. Louisiana Republican Bobby Jindal has even fewer worries: He will face only token opposition when he goes before voters later this month. Political observers expect that Mississippi Lieutenant Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, will keep the governor's mansion there in GOP hands.

Smith, from the Democratic Governors Association, says Democrats are faring well, with the advantage in Kentucky and West Virginia, especially considering that all four gubernatorial elections this year are in states that voted for John McCain in 2008.

National comparisons

Not surprisingly, Republicans are using national issues to undercut Tomblin. The RGA's latest ad , for example, shows images of Tomblin and President Obama next to each other. It accuses Tomblin of doing "absolutely nothing" to resist the federal health reform law that Obama pushed through Congress.

West Virginia is still worse off than most of the country economically, argues the RGA's Schrimpf. It is near the bottom among the states in how much typical families earn. It has some of the highest percentages of people who either do not have jobs or are not looking for them. A recent Maloney ad underscores the point. "West Virginia wouldn't tolerate 49th or 50th from a football coach," Maloney says in the ad, "why should we tolerate it from a governor?"

But Democrats call the national issues a ploy to distract voters.

"West Virginia is in a much, much better position than virtually any state in the country," says Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman. "We have a $330 million surplus, we're cutting taxes, we're attracting jobs and bringing in business because we have stability that is just hard to find around the country right now. We have a rainy day fund with $750 million in it, so we're prepared for economic downturns and difficult spots."

The unemployment rate is below the national average, Stadelman adds. Several national companies, including Macy's and Amazon.com, recently announced they will locate facilities in the state. 

 
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