Salena Zito

WHEELING, W.Va. -- Even the experts find the outcome of Tuesday's gubernatorial election in this state hard to predict. They're watching it, in part, to gauge the mood of the electorate.

This unsettled race matches acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, 59, against Republican Bill Maloney, 52, of Morgantown. Tomblin is a teacher and businessman from Chapmanville who spent 36 years in the legislature. Maloney, an industrial engineer and drilling company owner, is making his first run for political office.

The national parties invested time and money in this race -- the Democratic Governors Association and Republican Governors Association each spent more than $2 million -- in hopes of swaying the political narrative about how the results may indicate President Obama's political future.

Analysts consider Tomblin and Maloney, conservatives with similar campaign platforms, to be likeable candidates. Yet this election, they say, might not be about just the candidates. It could be colored by anti-incumbency filtering down from an increasing dislike of Washington's economic and domestic policies.

“The truth is I have no idea who is going to win on Tuesday,” said Robert Rupp, a history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon. “Usually, you know which way an election is moving ... or (have) at least a hint. This race's uncertainty is unfamiliar territory.”

The special election will choose someone to finish the unexpired term of former Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who succeeded the state's legendary politician Robert C. Byrd in the Senate after Byrd's death in June 2010. Analysts expect the winner to run in next year's regular election for a full four-year term.

Early voting began last week and by Friday, more Democrats cast ballots than Republicans -- but no one knows if they voted along party lines.

"I am still undecided; I am going to weigh both candidates to see who is best to take the state forward," said Ryan Ferns, a Democrat and member of the state House of Delegates from Ohio County.

The Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling in Washington released a poll on the race on Sept. 7 that showed Maloney trailing Tomblin by 6 percentage points. A Sept. 22 Mellman Group poll, paid for by the Democratic Governors Association, put Tomblin ahead by 10 percentage points.

Republican attempts to nationalize the campaign have fallen flat, the association's spokeswoman Lis Smith said.

“We are confident that the race will be won on local issues, such as creating jobs, lowering taxes, which Gov. Tomblin has led the way on,” Smith said.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.