Voters in West Virginia will choose the state’s next governor on Tuesday, in a special election to finish the term of Democrat Joe Manchin. The popular former governor left office after being elected to the U.S. Senate last November.
On the ballot are the man who has been acting governor, Democratic state Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, and GOP businessman Bill Maloney.
But Republicans are trying to make the race a referendum on someone not on the ballot: President Obama.
‘We Got To Fight Back Washington’
The president has never been popular in West Virginia. He lost the Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton in 2008, the general election to John McCain, and his approval rating in the Mountain State is in the low 30s.
So Republicans believe they can capture the governor’s mansion if only they can tie the unpopular president and his policies to the Democrats’ candidate for governor.
“Experts say the Obama health care plan will make our economy even worse. So what’s Gov. Tomblin doing about it?” asks one TV ad Republicans have been running. “Absolutely nothing.”
Maloney is for the most part letting these ads speak for him. Several phone calls and emails seeking an interview were not returned. But in August, at the opening of his Charleston campaign office, he did give a few clues as to what his style would be if elected.
“Above all, we got to fight back Washington,” he said. “We were with Gov. Perry here last week in Texas, and he’s got it right: You fight back Washington, you can win and you can move your state forward. … I tell you one thing: I will actively campaign against Barack Obama, and I dare Earl Ray to do the same.”
Robert Behrman, a political science professor at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., points to polls indicating that Tomblin’s early lead in the race has been narrowing.
“The race keeps getting closer, and I think a lot of that has been this effort by Republicans to make it more of a national focus then a local focus,” he says. “They saw what happened in the 9th District in New York, and they think maybe they can repeat that here.”
In that race, a congressional seat that had been held by Democrats since 1923 was won by a Republican in a special election last month. Analysts say dissatisfaction with the economy and the president were contributing factors.
Tomblin and Democrats have been working hard to make sure that history isn’t repeated in West Virginia.
Doing The ‘Responsible’ Thing
At the American Legion hall in Barboursville, a little town on the western edge of the state near the Ohio River, there’s a lunch of sandwiches and cake put on by Veterans for Tomblin.
The conservative Democrat has been endorsed by just about every group that makes endorsements in West Virginia, from the NRA to the Coal Association to the mineworkers’ union.
Tomblin tells the American Legion audience that he’ll cut taxes and be responsible with the state’s finances.
“This election is going to mean so much on whether we continue to move West Virginia forward, doing the right thing, doing the responsible thing for our taxpayers,” he says.
In an interview, Tomblin says the Republican attempts to tie him to President Obama haven’t had much of an effect, and that voters will be taking a risk if they go for Maloney.
“It’s a special election here,” he says. “People are concentrated on who can lead this state forward. Do we want to continue on the path that we’re on, which is a positive path compared to the other states; or do we want to try someone from the other side who has made changes, and the kind of chaos that was created in Wisconsin or Ohio or some of the other states?”
Tomblin’s latest ad does play up his association with one prominent Democrat, the former governor now Sen. Joe Manchin.
The two stand side by side, as Manchin touts their efforts to “put our state’s financial house in order.”
“As governor I’ve continued to cut taxes and balance the budget,” adds Tomblin.
It’s worth noting that Manchin himself was elected to the Senate last November after a campaign in which his Republican opponent tried to tie him to President Obama. The tactic failed then, and Democrats are hoping for the same result on Tuesday.