Acting West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin staved off a challenge by a newcomer Republican candidate in a special election Tuesday, foiling GOP efforts to tie him to Democrats in Washington.
Republicans had used their candidate, Bill Maloney, to try to make the election a referendum on President Obama and national issues, but their efforts came up short as Mr. Tomblin squeezed out a tight victory.
The Associated Press called the race just after 9 p.m., a little more than 90 minutes after the polls closed. With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Tomblin held a 49 percent to 47 percent lead over Mr. Maloney, with the remaining vote going to several third-party candidates.
Democrats cheered the result, but did not read into it any broader meaning for next year's national elections, saying this race turned on West Virginia voters' concerns.
"Tonight the people of West Virginia sent a clear message to national Republicans," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, in a statement Tuesday night. "Even in the most competitive circumstances, Gov. Tomblin was able to highlight his record of effectiveness and withstand Republican attempts to nationalize the race."
The race is considered the only competitive governor's election this year, which features very few races. Republicans are expected to keep the top spots in Mississippi and Louisiana, while Democrats seem poised to keep the Kentucky governor's mansion.
The candidates were vying to fill the rest of the term of Joe Manchin, the former governor who won the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
Mr. Tomblin, who is president of the state Senate, has been acting governor since Mr. Manchin joined the Senate last year.
Mr. Maloney co-founded a drilling company and tried to connect with voters using the fame he earned by helping draw up the plan that led to the rescue of trapped miners in Chile last year.
Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans in West Virginia, but they lean toward the conservative side of the political spectrum, and that meant both Mr. Tomblin and Mr. Maloney held similar views.
That left Mr. Tomblin arguing that his record in office would give him the edge. He also had the endorsements of the National Rifle Association, the West Virginia Medical Association, labor unions and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
National Republicans, though, poured millions of dollars into the race trying to tie Mr. Tomblin to Mr. Obama, and particularly to the health care law he signed. Many states have challenged it in court but Mr. Tomblin has not.
West Virginia is unlikely to vote next year for Mr. Obama, who lost the state's five electoral votes in 2008 to Sen. John McCain by 13 percentage points.
And the state has been trending more Republican, with the GOP capturing one of its House seats from Democrats in last year's elections. But Democrats still control the levers of power in state government.
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