Tuesday’s special election for governor of West Virginia is becoming a nail-biter, with the Democrat holding a one-point lead in a recent poll.
Public Policy Polling released a poll Monday showing acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) leads his Republican opponent, Bill Maloney, 47 percent to 46 percent in what has become the country’s most competitive gubernatorial election of 2011. Tomblin led Maloney 46 percent to 40 percent a month ago. The election is being held to fill the remaining 14 months on the term started by Democrat Joe Manchin, who resigned to become a U.S. senator last year.
The race -- which could end the Democrats’ decade-long grip on the West Virginia governor’s mansion -- has gained national significance with involvement from both the Democratic and Republican governors associations. The Washington Post reports that the RGA has spent $3.4 million on the West Virginia election, while the DGA has spent $1.8 million. The RGA’s spending included commercials linking Tomblin to President Barack Obama’s health care policies, which have aired frequently on Washington, D.C. television stations in recent days.
At least one observer thinks the national spotlight has not helped either candidate.
“People are sick of both of them,” said Neil Berch, associate professor of political science at West Virginia University. “People are complaining about the text messages they are getting. The stage is saturated thanks in large part to the Democratic and Republican Governors Associations.”
The special election was called in January by the West Virginia Supreme Court, saying that an elected governor had to be in place by Nov. 15, the first anniversary of Manchin’s resignation to become a senator. Tomblin, the longtime state Senate president, has been acting as governor since Manchin’s resignation.
Tomblin defeated four candidates -- including the secretary of state, state treasurer, state house speaker and acting Senate president -- in the May primary election. Maloney, a mining executive, was not the establishment favorite to win the GOP primary, but defeated former Secretary of State Betty Ireland.
“He had significant Tea Party support in the primary,” Berch said. “He considered the fact that Betty Ireland had been a statewide politician to be a negative. His claim to fame was he had never been in office.”
Maloney has used his private sector credentials as a selling point in both his primary run against Ireland and in the general election race against Tomblin. Tomblin has been a fixture in West Virginia politics since his first election to the state legislature in 1974, and has led the Senate since 1995.
“Clearly, Bill Maloney’s message of being an honest leader who will create jobs is resonating all across the state,” Maloney spokeswoman Michelle Yi said in response to the poll. “Bill is the only proven job creator and honest leader in this race. While Tomblin will campaign with Obama, Bill will actively campaign against him.“
Tomblin’s campaign downplayed the poll, saying they expected the race to be close.
“Bill Maloney and his allies have spent more than $5 million attacking and lying about Earl Ray Tomblin, so it's not a surprise that it is closer,” Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman said. “Some people seem to think this race is about 2012 and they're using Bill Maloney to send a message.”
Berch said that while the race has been dominated in recent weeks by outside spending, he has not seen much of a difference between both candidates in terms of issues. Both Tomblin and Maloney have centered their campaigns on energy and economic issues, with the Democrat promoting the current course of action in Charleston and the Republican saying he'll change the direction of state government.
Given the nature of the special election -- including its October date -- Berch said low turnout is expected and said "get out the vote" strategies will be important to who pulls out a win.
“It is a matter of who gets their vote out,” he said. “People are focused on a lot of other things. I don’t see a lot of interest in the election.”