Hot-button federal issues aren't typically at the center of governor's races. But in West Virginia, businessman Bill Maloney and national Republicans are tying acting Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to President Obama late in the race on the president's signature health care plan. And the issue is likely to surface again in 2012's most competitive governors' races. In some places, it already has.
Unlike other issues that have roiled special elections this year -- Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan, the debate over raising the federal debt ceiling -- the states have a role to play in the ongoing battle over the health care law. Twenty-six have joined a legal challenge to the law, and the Republican Governors Association's final ad in West Virginia focuses on Tomblin's refusal to join the protest.
Maloney is spending the final stretch arguing that Tomblin's inaction against Obama's health care plan is a major reason voters should take a stand against him. "He said early on he didn't like Obamacare, but now he seems to be okay with it," Maloney said of Tomblin in an interview with National Journal after a Lincoln Day Dinner appearance in Harrisville. "I'm going to sue, and we're going to be the 27th state to sue and try to get rid of Obamacare. He's not going to do that. So that's a stark difference right there."
It's one way Republicans are trying to link the state executive to Washington, which history shows is no easy task.
"I think it's very pertinent," said Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va. "This administration seems to be willing to go with Washington on that. That's not good. Obamacare is going to be decided by the Supreme Court. But we should have pushed back to have been participating in that."
As the battle in West Virginia comes to a close, there are signs that the federal health care act could become a central campaign issue in 2012's gubernatorial races.
In North Carolina, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a likely challenger to the vulnerable Gov. Bev Perdue, recorded a message in March to urge an override to the governor's veto of a state health care bill.
"A majority of states have challenged the worst parts of Obamacare, and two federal judges have agreed that this massive federal bill is unconstitutional," McCrory said in the messsage. "The North Carolina General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill to protect you from a federal government mandate to buy health insurance and other unconstitutional parts of Obamacare.
"But after a trip to the White House and meetings with other Washington politicians, Governor Perdue changed her initial stance and decided to veto this common-sense legislation," McCrory said.
The health care law also has become a hot issue in Washington state, where one of next year's most competitive open-seat races will take place. Last week, Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., the likely Democratic nominee, criticized Attorney General Rob McKenna, the likely Republican nominee, over a new filing in a multi-state lawsuit challenging the health care act's constitutionality.
McKenna, who has cultivated a moderate profile, does not oppose the entire law, only portions that he believes are unconstitutional, including the individual mandate. But Inslee, who supports the health care plan, has criticized him for remaining a part of the suit, which seeks to strike down the whole law.
"In a multi-state case, legal briefs reflect the majority's opinion on the issue," McKenna said in a statement on Friday. "And while I was unable to persuade my colleagues to my point of view, it's vitally important Washington's viewpoint continue to be represented in this case. That's why I did not opt to remove Washington from the 26-state group."
On the day that the 26-state group asked justices to strike down the entire measure, the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to hear another case challenging the law. A ruling could come in the middle of the 2012 campaign, and the timing would be certain to roil some already contentious governor's races, no matter which way the decision goes.
Health care has also surfaced as a contentious issue in Show-Me State politics, with Republicans in the state legislature alleging last month that Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon issued an executive order creating a state-run insurance exchange. An executive order was not issued, but it was another example of how quickly the health care issue can spark a fight on the state level.
In West Virginia, Tomblin is working to keep the focus on local issues in the race, something vulnerable Democratic governors will try repeat in 2012.
"I think most people are pleased with the direction we're going," Tomblin said after a rally in Logan. "I think the people in West Virginia are pleased with the way we're handling our government here in West Virginia."
This article appears in the October 3, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.