GOP eyeing upset in West Virginia governor race

Incumbent has small lead in polls

The Republican wave that has swept into governors’ mansions of neighboring states has yet to reach West Virginia, but the GOP hopes that will change when a political newcomer tries to unseat the acting Democratic governor in a special election Tuesday.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, 59, holds a single-digit lead in polling over Bill Maloney, a businessman who is the Republican nominee, in what both sides expect to be the most competitive governor’s race this year. Both sides have dug deep into their pockets to fund the battle.

“I believe we’re the next red state,” Mr. Maloney told The Washington Times, referring to the GOP sweep throughout the Southeast. “We feel poised to do that in West Virginia.”

Mr. Maloney, who has never held elected office, is up against a seasoned veteran. First elected to the Legislature at 22, Mr. Tomblin became state Senate president in 1995 and stepped in last year to fill in for former Gov. Joe Manchin, who won the Senate seat vacated by the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

“We have a track record, that is the biggest difference,” said Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman. “It’s been hard to find out what Maloney really stands for.”

For Mr. Maloney, differentiating his positions from those held by the governor has proven challenging in a state where both candidates are running on a platform of cutting taxes and Mr. Tomblin has swept up endorsements from the NRA, the West Virginia Medical Association and nearly every other industry group in the state, along with Mr. Maloney’s hometown newspaper.

Mr. Maloney is trying to connect with voters over coal mining, a topic close to the hearts of West Virginians. Co-founder of a drilling company he sold five years ago, he rarely misses an opportunity to talk about the Chilean mining accident last year, where he helped to devise the drilling plan that eventually resulted in the rescue of the miners trapped underground for two months.

“We rescued 33 minors in Chile,” Mr. Maloney said. “It’s time to rescue 1.8 million West Virginians from that deep dark hole we’ve been in too long. People just don’t realize it can be so much better in West Virginia.”

Mr. Maloney’s campaign has made enough inroads to attract heavy investment by the Republican Governors Association, which started airing ads in late August and has spent $2.7 million, slightly topping the nearly $2.4 million spent by the Democratic Governors Association.

He was down by 6 points in an early September poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, the firm’s first poll since before the GOP primary in May, when the gap was 14 points. A Mellman Group poll that was commissioned by the DGA showed Mr. Maloney trailing by 10 points in mid-September, down from 14 points in August.

Mr. Maloney has targeted Mr. Tomblin in a stream of attack ads that challenge the governor’s ethics and record on taxes in a campaign that some observers say has taken an overly negative tone. He has accused him of directing state funds to his family’s greyhound-racing business and has sought to tie him to President Obama.

That approach doesn’t work on an opponent who has been around for as long as Mr. Tomblin, said Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed the governor. Voters who might have paid attention when Mr. Maloney started airing the ads a few weeks after the primary are numb to them by now, he said.

“There’s not an aura of believability about it,” Mr. Roberts said. “Here’s a guy, he’s very well-known. Everybody knows his lifestyle is a rather modest lifestyle, everybody knows his wife works as an educator, and he has one child, and he’s devoted much of his life’s work to serving in the state Senate. He’s a very cautious spender of the people’s money, so trying to paint him as some sort of unethical figure has not really passed the smell test.”

As Mr. Tomblin enjoys backing from the ever-popular Mr. Manchin, who recently appeared alongside him in a television ad, Mr. Maloney has tried to take it further by linking him to Mr. Obama and the national party.

But while just 32 percent of West Virginians approve of Mr. Obama’s job performance and the state hasn’t gone Democrat in a presidential election since Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996, politics are different at the state level.

In the 2010 election, while Republicans did well nationally, Democrats didn’t yield much turf in West Virginia. The party maintained a strong majority in both chambers of the state Legislature, losing six seats in the House of Delegates, but picking up a Senate seat, even as Republicans saw major gains in other statehouses.

To Mr. Roberts, who speaks glowingly of Mr. Tomblin’s contributions to cutting business and corporate-income taxes, privatizing the workers’ compensation fund and tort-reform bills passed in 2001 and 2003, it came down to experience.

“We think West Virginia is in very good shape because we have two very good people running, and one we happen to have worked with on major bills,” he said.

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