Early Voting Begins For West Virginia Governor Special Election

While the nation begins to focus its collective microscope on the 2012 presidential race, West Virginians — and political junkies — have set their sights on the state’s gubernatorial special election, for which early voting begins today.

In a state that voted Republican in the past three presidential elections, the Democratic candidate, acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, still has a slight edge in the polls over his Republican rival, businessman Bill Maloney, although Ray’s lead has been cut in half in the past month.

While attempts to paint a local race as a national referendum on President Obama were somewhat successful in New York’s 9 th Congressional district’s special election last week, it’s not so cut-and-dried in West Virginia.

“It’s a quirky race,” said Neil Berch, an associate political science professor at West Virginia University. “Partly because it is only a race for a little over a year of a term,” and partly “because you have an incumbent who is only sort off an incumbent.”

Tomblin, the president of the state Senate, became the acting governor last November after former Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin  won a special election for the late Sen. Robert Byrd’s seat.

While the polling shows the candidates neck in neck, Tomblin is winning the endorsement race. Both the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO have endorsed the Democratic candidate, as has the National Rifle Association, creating a coalition similar to the one that helped Manchin win his Senate bid.

Republican Governors Association spokesman Mike Schrimpf said that for Democrats to lose the governor seat that Manchin gave up would be “devastating on its face.”

“West Virginia is a very Democratic state …  so all the pressure is on Democrats to win,” Schrimpf said.

Berch said that he did not  believe the race for Manchin’s seat, which will be in the ring again in 2012, will be painted as “directly a referendum on the president” like the New York race in some ways was.

“A West Virginia Democrat is not a national Democrat,” Berch said. “Gov. Tomblin, if you look at his record, would in many states be a Republican. The same is true for Joe Manchin.”

But as the race enters the home stretch before the Oct. 4 election, Maloney’s campaign has stepped up its efforts to link Tomblin with the national branch of his party. The Republican Governors Association has dropped almost $770,000 on the West Virginia race, according to the West Virginia Gazzette.

“Unlike our opponent, Bill will actively campaign against Barack Obama,” Maloney spokeswoman Michelle Yi told the Washington Post. “Obama’s job-killing EPA is already hurting West Virginia families and Obamacare will really hurt our seniors. It’s no wonder that the Obama Machine is dedicating millions to ensure that their proxy Earl Ray Tomblin gets into the governor’s office.”

Democratic Governor Association spokesman Lis Smith said Republicans’ attempt to tie Tomblin to national Democrats is “a real stretch.” The DGA has spent upward of $630,000 on the race, according to the Gazzette report.

“Republicans may try to nationalize the race in the last two weeks but that’s nothing more than a Hail Mary on their part,” Smith said. “Trying to extrapolate what the results of the governor’s race here mean for President Obama probably wouldn’t be very instructive.”

Next door to West Virginia, another red state, Kentucky,  is inches away from electing a Democratic Governor. Incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear is beating GOP state Senate President David Williams by 27 points in the latest poll.

Smith, of the DGA, said Beshear is in “a pretty storng place now,” with less than two months until the Nov. 8 election. And while the RGA ran ads supporting Williams’ candidacy in July, it has not made an ad buy for the trailing Republican since.

“Anyone who has been around politics for any time knows that anything is possible,”  Republican political consultant Ted Jackson told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “But with every passing day, it’s hard to see how [Williams] can get competitive in this race … and it’s hard to see many ways he can reverse this.”