By Sean Sullivan and Julie Sobel
In the lead-up to Tuesday’s special gubernatorial election in West Virginia, buzz about national implications drowned out discussion of the potential in-state political clues the race might yield. While special elections aren’t always accurate harbingers—and should be viewed accordingly—a review of Democratic Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s victory reveals at least a few hints about what is in store for two vulnerable Mountain State incumbents from different parties in 2012: Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and GOP Rep. David McKinley.
After a sleepy summer, Republican businessman Bill Maloney amped up the special-election contest, pouring money into his campaign and taking to the airwaves. Maloney played the outsider card, while Tomblin kept the focus on state issues. Then came the candidates’ closing arguments, which ushered in national themes. Maloney’s most prominent financial ally, the Republican Governors Association, bet big on an ad tying Tomblin to President Obama, who is very unpopular in the state. Tomblin closed with an ad featuring the popular Manchin, who has broken with the president on several occasions.
Tomblin’s victory is a testament to both his success in keeping his distance from Obama and his ability to turn out the Democratic base. It’s also an affirmation of the strength of the Manchin political model. He cobbled together a coalition similar to Manchin’s in 2010: Both landed endorsements from the National Rifle Association, the state Chamber of Commerce, and key labor groups en route to defeating a Republican. In other words, it was not a typical Democratic coalition.
Tomblin also echoed Manchin’s message: Lean to the middle on social issues, focus on West Virginia matters, and keep the president at arm’s length. With Obama on the ballot in 2012, the third tactic will be even more important for Manchin.
Although Manchin is considered vulnerable in 2012, he’s the only top Senate target in the country who has yet to attract an opponent. And while West Virginia has been caught up in the special election to fill the governor’s seat, Manchin, the former governor, has yet to face any challenge. Tomblin’s victory gives would-be Manchin challengers something extra to consider.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the most popular Republican in the state, has yet to say whether she’ll run for the Senate (or governor) in 2012, but is considered more likely to wait until 2014 to take on Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who is in his fifth term. Businessman John Raese, who made an unsuccessful bid against Manchin last year, can’t be written off, and he could self-fund another run.
Manchin wasn’t the only politician keeping a close eye on Tuesday night’s returns. McKinley, who beat Democrat Mike Oliverio in 2010 by less than 1 percent of the vote, faces a likely rematch against the former state senator, who is running again. Meanwhile, former Rep. Alan Mollohan, a Democrat who Oliverio beat in the 2010 primary, hasn’t ruled out another run of his own. And the district was virtually unchanged in the redistricting process.
Maloney’s hometown of Morgantown is in the 1st District, in the northernmost part of the state. He carried its counties by nearly six points on Tuesday. That’s encouraging news for McKinley. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., won there by double digits, but it’s a competitive district, something McKinley knows well. The freshman lawmaker has not always hewed to the Republican Party line: He was one of just four GOP House members to vote against Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan.
Finally, the election results could affect yet another 2012 West Virginia race: the gubernatorial contest. Tomblin will serve out the remainder of Manchin’s term, but almost immediately has to pivot to reelection mode. While Maloney fell short, he kept the race close, forcing national Democrats to spend a healthy sum of money even as their Republican counterparts sport a big cash advantage. He notched a victory in a Republican primary that he was not favored to win and unlike Raese, hasn’t lost several campaigns. For these reasons, he will remain a possibility for a rematch with Tomblin in 2012, unless he removes himself from consideration. He offered no hints Tuesday in his concession speech.
“While our campaign ends today, the fight to move West Virginia forward will continue. I urge you to remain committed to a better West Virginia. You have the power to make sure the politicians work in your best interest, not theirs,” he said.
Reid Wilson is off this week.
This article appears in the October 6, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.