Over the weekend, Republicans I talked with really and truly believed they could win this one, and I thought they were right. The Public Policy Polling survey for Daily Kos released Monday showed Republican Bill Maloney pulling within one point of acting governor (now governor-elect) Earl Ray Tomblin. The momentum seemed to be with Maloney, and the Republican Governors Association poured a small fortune into the race. It hoped to seal the deal with ads that (improbably) associated conservative Democrat Tomblin with President Obama. But when the votes were counted, Tomlin won by three points with 150,732 votes to Maloney’s 142,889.

Face it: If Maloney had won, this would be much bigger news. Republicans would have linked it with the Democrats’ recent loss in New York’s Ninth Congressional District to feed a narrative of Obama weakness, Democratic panic and all sorts of other gloomy tidings for the White House. The mere fact that those stories aren’t there is good news for Obama.

This race, of course, has no significance for the presidential election. There is no way Obama will carry West Virginia, which he lost in 2008. Or, if he does, he will be winning such a big landslide that all of our current assumptions will be blown away. (I’m betting on the first, not the second.)

But this does tell us that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is just as popular as everyone thought he was and will make a very poor target in the Republicans’ efforts to take over the U.S. Senate next year. Democrats countered the GOP’s anti-Obama ads with an endorsement ad for Tomblin from Manchin, and it appears to have helped. Facing less electoral pressure, Manchin might feel a bit more freedom to vote with the Democratic leadership, though he is a conservative Democrat who is likely to remain one.

Writing on Daily Kos, Steve Singiser made another useful point: That those anti-Obama ads were not what made this race close. Singiser points out that Republican Maloney was already within six points of Tomblin in the Kos/PPP poll in early September. He argues plausibly that “Maloney’s ‘surge’ from the beginning of the campaign until now was the simple process of (a) improving name recognition and (b) consolidation of the GOP vote in the wake of a close and competitive primary against Betty Ireland.” You could even make a case that in the exchange of ads at the end of the campaign, the Manchin ad had more impact than the anti-Obama one. But that is probably slicing the electoral salami too thin.

The main point is that Democrats dodged a bad news story and that Republicans tried hard but failed. Oh, yes, and Tomblin, who has to face the voters again a year from November, was quite happy to tell off the folks who spent a fortune to beat him: “We may be open for business,” he said, “but ladies and gentlemen, West Virginia is not for sale.”