West Virginia is the site of this year's only competitive gubernatorial race, where Republicans are zeroing in on President Obama's unpopularity as they try to pull off an upset next Tuesday.
Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is trying to hold his seat for Democrats in a tightening contest. Republicans are marshaling their resources in the final week before the Oct. 4 election to tie Tomblin to the president in the hopes of nationalizing a gubernatorial contest, even though history suggests it’s not a very promising strategy.
Following the 2010 elections, the University of Minnesota's "Smart Politics" political news website analyzed 550 statewide presidential election results dating back to 1968 and found no correlation between states won by Democratic and Republican presidential nominees and the partisan control of the governor's mansion.
But that's not stopping Republicans from making a late push to tie the White House to the governorship in a state where the president's brand is more unpopular than it is in most other places across the country. According to aggregated Gallup Daily tracking data from January through June of 2011, Obama's approval rating in the Mountain State is 33 percent, placing it among the bottom ten states for the president.
Obama was unpopular in the state even before being elected president. He lost the 2008 presidential primary in West Virginia to Hillary Clinton by 41 points. In the general election, Mountain State voters preferred Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., 55 percent to 42 percent.
This isn’t the first time Republicans have tried to sink a West Virginia Democrat by tying him to Obama. In 2010, Republican Senate nominee John Raese spent much of the fall waging an ad campaign comparing now Sen. Joe Manchin to the president on issues ranging from cap and trade to health care. One ad was straightforward about the strategy: "It's clear,” the ad began. “A vote for Joe Manchin is a vote for Barack Obama."
Maloney has been busy working to link Tomblin to Obama since early September, but in the race’s final week, he’s getting national reinforcements for the message. An ad released Wednesday by the Republican Governors Association zeroes in on the president's health care plan and attacks Tomblin for not fighting against its implementation.
"Experts say the Obama health care plan will make our economy even worse," says the ad's narrator. "So what's Governor Tomblin doing about it? Absolutely nothing."
The RGA's latest ad is the organization’s fourth, and the previous three did not involve Obama. Making an issue of the president late in the campaign is a deliberate decision, Republicans say, and based on what they learned from the 2010 Senate election.
"We learned that the tie between Obama and Joe Manchin was much too early in the campaign," said West Virginia GOP Chairman Mike Stuart earlier this week. Manchin had time last year to strike back with ads like the infamous Dead Aim spot, in which he shoots a gun at the cap and trade legislation.
But some observers say the decision to drop the Obama-related attacks so late in the race may backfire.
"Any issue brought up in the last ten days of the election is hard to get traction," West Virginia Wesleyan University political scientist Robert Rupp said. "I think one of those things looking back is they're going to say should we have stressed that more."
Tomblin's closing argument: An ad featuring Manchin, the state's most well-known Democrat, and one who hardly numbers as one of Obama’s closest allies. Manchin has been sharply critical of Obama’s economic strategy and has called for partial repeal of the president’s health care plan.
The acting governor's middle-of-the-road style of politics is similar to Manchin's and his campaign is comparable to the senator's 2010 effort. He's flashed his right-of-center credentials with endorsements from the state Chamber of Commerce and National Rifle Association and steered clear of mentioning the president, an acknowledgment of Obama's unpopularity.
"This is a West Virginia race. This is to be West Virginia's governor and I think we are focused on West Virginia issues," said Tomblin spokesperson Chris Stadelman.
Because of the parochial nature of gubernatorial politics, it's a difficult to draw sweeping conclusions about national trends based on the results of one race. If Tomblin wins, many factors -- including the strength of his fundraising, the state's natural Democratic tilt and the skill of his campaign -- will have contributed to his victory.
If Maloney wins, it gives down-ballot Democrats another reason to separate themselves from the president. But other factors besides voters’ attitudes towards the president also will have played a part. Chief among them, Maloney's self-funding, and his resume: He’s businessman who has never held public office running against a 36-year veteran of the state legislature.
Should Maloney pull off an upset "Obama drag will be a factor," Rupp said. "But more important than Obama is just the anti-incumbent mood."
But the biggest key to the outcome may be the fact that this is a special, off-year election not expected to attract high turnout.
"I really think what it more comes down to is who gets their voters out on Tuesday," said West Virginia University political scientist Neil Berch.
This article appears in the September 29, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.
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