Why Did Tomblin Prevail in Special Election Despite GOP Efforts?

Earl Ray Tomblin narrowly defeated his Republican rival in last night's gubernatorial special election. What factors are contributing to the state's Republican resistance?
by , | October 5, 2011

Last night, West Virginia Democrats demonstrated their ability to hold back national Republican tides in their working-class conservative state, as Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin narrowly defeated Republican businessman Bill Maloney for the right to fill out the remainder of the gubernatorial term initially won in 2008 by Joe Manchin, another conservative Democrat.

Tomblin -- a veteran legislator who secured the backing of both business and labor groups -- ended up winning, 50 percent to 47 percent, despite a barrage of television advertisements in the state’s Republican-leaning eastern panhandle that seeked to link Tomblin to President Barack Obama’s health care plan.

National Republicans had hoped that the investment on behalf of Maloney -- including a reported $3.4 million spent by the Republican Governors Association, much of it for ads in the expensive Washington, D.C. market -- would enable them to bring down a Democrat in a state where Obama won only 43 percent of the vote in 2008. That was the same percentage as John Kerry had won four years earlier -- and likely more than Obama will win in the state when he runs for a second term in 2012. Obama’s approval ratings in West Virginia -- which are hovering around 30 percent -- rank among his worst anywhere in the country.

But while Maloney did win additional votes in the areas targeted by the flurry of anti-“Obamacare” ads, they weren’t enough to close the gap statewide. Tomblin’s margin ended up being narrower than the 53 percent-43 percent victory Manchin achieved in his 2010 Senate bid, which also came amid an awful environment for Democrats, and against a Republican nominee who was a wealthy businessman, John Raese. But Tomblin managed to hold on even as pre-election polls showed a vanishing lead for the incumbent.

“The money spent by the Republican governors may have attracted national attention, but West Virginia Democrats have separated themselves from a Democratic president, and from Republican attempts to tie the two together,” said Robert Rupp, a political scientist at West Virginia Wesleyan College. “This is now the second time it hasn’t worked -- Manchin’s Senate race was the first.”

So how did Tomblin do it? In the hours after his victory, we asked a range of West Virginia political observers for their thoughts. Here are some of the factors they mentioned.

Republicans waged an air war, when they might have invested those dollars more fruitfully in a ground war.

West Virginia Democrats have a generations-old edge in lower offices, an advantage that Republicans have yet to systematically crack, despite gains in federal races.

“Even as West Virginia goes Republican nationally, state Democrats take elections at the local level very seriously,” said Steven Allen Adams, the editor-in-chief of West Virginia Watchdog, an online publication covering politics in the state. They've been a majority party for over 80 years, and the reason is a base that gets out the vote.”

If the GOP had a better ground-level party infrastructure, observers say, it would help the party recruit better candidates -- something that they have fallen short of doing in recent races.

“If the Republican Party, instead of spending millions on commercials, had spent half a million dollars on party infrastructure, they would have been able to build up the party,” Rupp said. “This is still a small state, where you have to practice personal politics.”

In a small and close-knit state, a candidate’s personal characteristics matter.

“Earl Ray Tomblin has little in common with Barack Obama besides a party label, and people here vote accordingly,” said Neil Berch, a political scientist at West Virginia University.

John C. Kilwein, another WVU political scientist, agreed. "He's an archetypal West Virginia politician," Kilwein said. "He was supported by a popular Sen. Manchin. He supports the extraction industries. He had a strong, albeit declining, party machine behind him."

By contrast, the GOP’s thin bench in West Virginia has left the party with candidates who have less-than-perfect profiles for the state. Kilwein suggests that the only promising statewide candidate for the GOP is veteran U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who's been reluctant to give up her safe House seat for higher office.

“This is the second time in a row for a statewide office where the Republicans ran a millionaire businessman who had never held public office,” Rupp said. An economically conservative millionaire can still be a tough sell in parts of this historically hardscrabble state, no matter how culturally conservative they may be.

Tomblin benefited from a combination of incumbency and ideology.

While much of the nation is in a funk over the economy, West Virginia, fueled partly by resource extraction and partly by the absence of a housing bust, is not doing as badly as many states are. Unemployment fell on Manchin’s watch from 9.6 percent in January 2011 to 8.1 percent in August 2011. Today’s rate is a full percentage point below the national average.

“While Tomblin had only a few months to develop a presence, during that time the food tax was decreased and Tomblin made a good case that he has been involved in creating the stability of state resources, even in a climate where other states are suffering,” said Marybeth Beller, a Marshall University political scientist.

This backdrop allowed Tomblin to run a largely positive campaign, which only polished his appeal, observers said. “He kept to his message of more jobs and lower taxes,” said Curtis Wilkerson, a Democratic consultant in the state. “He was ‘our kind of Democrat.’"

Meanwhile, Tomblin -- like many of his fellow West Virginia Democrats -- could fend off accusations of being too liberal for the state by brandishing endorsements. In Tomblin’s case, he earned nods from the National Rifle Association and the Coal Association, among others.

“West Virginia is still a majority-Democratic state and is still a majority working-class state,” said John Kennedy Bailey, an attorney in the state capital of Charleston and a Democratic activist. “Republicans only win when the Democrat can be villainized as too liberal.”

At the same time, “center-left Democrats” had to be for Tomblin despite his conservative stance, Bailey said. That’s how Tomblin was simultaneously able to get union endorsements, even though his record on labor issues was far from perfect. “They're not going to vote Republican,” Bailey said.

As long as the Democrats run statewide candidates as conservative as Manchin and Tomblin, Berch said, “the Republicans will have a tough time winning. Even with relatively favorable conditions, they can't quite close the deal.”

Republicans say there are reasons that made the Tomblin contest exceptional. "It was a special election with low voter turnout," said Elgine McArdle, the GOP chairwoman in Ohio County, which includes Wheeling. "Bill Maloney won many counties throughout the state, but when only 25 percent of the registered voters actually vote, the result becomes skewed. Maloney went from 3 percent name recognition to within 3 percent of becoming governor of West Virginia. I think that it speaks volumes."

Of course, the closeness of Tomblin’s victory suggests that Democrats running statewide are going to continue facing tough challenges in the years ahead, especially as long-held seats become open through the retirements or deaths of incumbents.

But that process could take years.

“Republicans here need to remember that just because they feel that Democrats have done a bad job does not mean they are automatically entitled to take over,” Adams said. “You have to earn elections. They’re not given to you.”

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