A culturally conservative but Democratic-leaning electorate goes to the polls in an off-year and delivers a big victory for Republicans and a big defeat for Obama.
Voters in the Mountain State will head to the polls Oct. 4 to fill the final year of now-Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D) term as governor, with acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) facing off against businessman Bill Maloney (R).
Republicans and Democrats acknowledge that the race has narrowed in recent weeks, and while Democrats are still seen as the favorites, just about anything is possible in this sort of unsettled electoral environment.
But casting the race as a New York 9-like referendum on President Obama largely misses the point.
For one, the race is a governor’s contest, meaning that the campaign is largely prosecuted on local issues not national ones.
Maloney has attempted to make an issue of Obama in the race, pointing to excessive regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency in particular, but it’s much harder to make those attacks stick when your opponent is not running to serve as a part of the federal government.
(Also, Tomblin’s favorable numbers remain quite good in a state that has moved heavily against President Obama.)
What’s more, Tomblin and Maloney took part in a debate this week, and Obama didn’t get mentioned once, according to sources present.
Second, while there may be a general sense of economic malaise across the country, West Virginia is a state unto itself in that regard. Recent polling has shown more than half of the state’s population thinks it is on he right track.
By way of contrast, the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that nationally, 77 percent of people think the country is on the wrong track.
That’s quite a difference and it shows the unique nature of West Virginia and its politics.
We should also remember that, despite its cultural conservatism, West Virginia has bucked the national trend towards Republicans. Despite electing a new GOP congressman in 2010, Democrats maintained overwhelming majorities in the state legislature and sent Manchin to be their senator.
So while other culturally conservative but historically Democratic states went big time for the GOP in 2010, West Virginia stuck it out with the Democrats.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats are doing much to play up the parallels between New York City and Wheeling, W.Va.
“Bill Maloney might be a New Yorker by birth, but that’s about all the West Virginia governor’s race has in common with New York’s 9th district,” said Elisabeth Smith, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association. “While the environment remains tough, this race will come down to a stark contrast between Earl Ray Tomblin — a tax-cutting, lifelong West Virginia — and Bill Maloney, a millionaire businessman who used West Virginia to get rich.”
Even Republicans, emboldened by their win in New York, weren’t ready to draw the lessons of that win into West Virginia.
But that doesn’t mean Obama doesn’t play a role. “Unlike our opponent, Bill will actively campaign against Barack Obama,” said Maloney spokeswoman Michelle Yi. “Obama’s job-killing EPA is already hurting West Virginia families and Obamacare will really hurt our seniors.It’s no wonder that the Obama Machine is dedicating millions to ensure that their proxy Earl Ray Tomblin gets into the governor’s office.”
If Democrats lose the governor’s race in West Virginia, Obama may have played a role. But like New York’s 9th district with its pockets of conservatism and orthodox Jewish population, West Virginia is just so politically anomalous that it’s hard to extrapolate too much into other parts of the country.