HARRISVILLE, W.Va. – West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is an insider who has served in state politics for well over three decades. He's a Democrat in a state that has turned decisively away from the national party. He's a member of the establishment when more voters than ever before are looking for outsiders. And he's winning right now.
Tomblin leads Republican businessman Bill Maloney in the run-up to Tuesday’s governor’s election, but his polls have shown the race tightening, and some Democrats fear that a worsening national climate for Democrats could imperil their hold on a gubernatorial seat.
Republicans are throwing the kitchen sink at Tomblin, viewing him as vulnerable in a state where Obama’s name is close to a dirty word. In ads splashed across the state’s airwaves, they’ve been trying to nationalize a governor’s race, accusing Tomblin of being an Obama loyalist.
The Republican Governors Association has been pouring in significant resources on a television ad that says Tomblin has been implementing Obama’s health care plan in West Virginia, hurting the state’s economy.
But Tomblin has managed to insulate himself from the attacks by focusing relentlessly on local issues and raising questions about Maloney’s business background. Tomblin’s success – and the success of another Appalachian-state Democratic governor up for reelection, Kentucky’s Steve Beshear, is a testament to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s maxim that all politics is local.
While Maloney has pushed hard to nationalize a governor’s race, this weekend has served as a reminder of how local and personal issues are often most important for voters in a statewide contest.
Dog racing, hardly a national issue, has become a significant matter in the closing days of the campaign. A Florida man was arrested for allegedly trying to extort Tomblin and threatening to release to the Maloney campaign footage that portrays dog racing in a negative light, a development that has forced the Republican to play defense the last 48 hours. Maloney has charged throughout the campaign that Tomblin has used his clout to advance the interests of his family, which is involved in the dog-racing industry.
The Saturday Charleston Gazette-Mail (the weekend edition of the two biggest newspapers in the state's largest city) front page was splashed with the headline, "Extortion try grazes Tomblin." Several other local papers gave the story generous column inches that could have otherwise been dedicated to Maloney's closing salvo: his all-out attempt to tie Tomblin to Obama.
During an interview with National Journal after a rally in Logan on Saturday, Tomblin dismissed the RGA's ads tying him to Obama's health care plan -- but not by defending the legislation.
"Like most of my opponent's ads, they're false," Tomblin said. "Just really outright lies. But what I've said about the national health care plan is it is the law of the land right now. There are parts that I do not agree with, and I think it's up to Congress to make those changes."
Despite the outsize influence of developments closer to home, the linking of Obama to Tomblin could swing some undecided voters, as even some of Tomblin's own supporters acknowledge.
Josh Butcher, a 31 year old lawyer attending the rally in Logan Saturday, said he found the RGA ad "kind of silly," but also believed some voters would buy into it.
As Republicans continue to try to link the president to Tomblin, the acting governor has his eye on another Democrat, one whose 2010 campaign looks very similar to Tomblin's 2011 effort, and one whose popularity in the Mountain State stands in stark contrast to Obama.
Tomblin has cozied up to popular Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a more-conservative politician who has effectively distanced himself from the president and the national party. Tomblin’s closing ad features the two men standing together.
Tomblin's 2011 coalition of supporters bears a striking resemblance to Manchin's 2010 campaign, in which he won over enough conservative Democrats to withstand a late surge from another Republican businessman, John Raese. Manchin's influence on the race is twofold. He's a prominent -- and local -- surrogate for Tomblin, but he's also demonstrated at least one way that a statewide Democratic campaign can find success in West Virginia.
The acting governor has landed an array of endorsements from both traditional Democratic supporters like organized labor and less traditional Democratic backers like the state Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association.
Even Maloney, aware of both Manchin's popularity and the political advantage Tomblin can gain by mirroring him, praised the state's junior senator. In an interview with National Journal on Saturday night after a after a Lincoln Day Dinner appearance here, Maloney praised Manchin but drew a distinction between him and Tomblin.
"Manchin, he's got good leadership qualities, I'll give him that," said Maloney. "Maybe they're politically similar. Manchin's got some leadership qualities; I don't see the acting governor leading on much of anything.