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.

Tomblin bills himself as a consensus-maker and legislative leader who saved taxpayers millions by revising the state pension system, privatizing workers' compensation, and cutting the food tax. He chaired the Senate Finance Committee and was the chamber's president for 18 years.

Endorsed by the AFL-CIO, West Virginia Education Association, United Mine Workers, West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, National Rifle Association and others, Tomblin looks forward to winning, campaign spokesperson Chris Stadelman said.

"He believes voters understand he has the best plan for West Virginia and that they appreciate his efforts to cut taxes for both consumers and job creators,” Stadelman said.

At a recent get-out-the-vote rally in a Wheeling law office, Maloney appeared relaxed and businesslike in tan Dockers and a navy blazer as he shook hands with supporters. About 55 people showed up to meet him.

“Everyone here has figured out that career politicians aren’t getting the job done,” Maloney said. He acknowledges his disadvantage in the race but remains enthusiastic: “I am an old hockey player. We play 'til the last second.”

West Virginia’s political stability collapsed when Byrd, who served in Congress for nearly a quarter of the nation's history, died at age 92. Manchin resigned about two years into his second gubernatorial term to run for the seat and handily beat his GOP opponent, Morgantown businessman John Raese, by 10 percentage points in November. Tomblin stepped into the governor's office from his post as Senate president.

Rupp worries that three back-to-back, major elections in as many years might lead to low turnout, noting that “only 16 percent of voters cast a ballot in the primary election last spring."

Such voter apathy could help Tomblin, Rupp said; on the other hand, growing distrust of career politicians could work in Maloney's favor. The trouble with handicapping this race, he said, is predicting which is stronger -- voters' indifference or their discontent with government.

Jim Thomas and his wife, Debbie, of Cameron intend to vote -- “The only people who are tired are the ones who have given up that things could be better in West Virginia,” said Thomas, a retired coal miner -- and they support Maloney. They voted for Byrd and Manchin, he said, but are asking their Democratic friends to give "the other guy" a chance this time.

“I know this is overused, but I cannot think of any other way to describe it -- the party left me, period,” said Thomas, who calls himself a retired Democrat. "Give someone new a chance. He has 14 months to show us what he is made of."

Republicans carried West Virginia in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, and in 2010, Republicans won two of the state's three congressional seats for the first time since 1948. But the Democratic Party has an edge here in voter registration (53 percent to 29 percent) and historically in state and local officeholders: Voters elected only two Republicans -- Cecil Underwood and Arch Moore Jr. -- as governors since 1956.

“West Virginia voters are predominantly Democrats, but a West Virginia Democrat is not a national Democrat,” said Neil Berch, political science professor at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

Republican U.S. Rep. David McKinley, who owns an architecture and engineering firm in Wheeling, attended the rally for Maloney. He won his seat in November despite a more than 18 percentage point Democratic registration edge, and he is asking people to vote Republican again.

“People have been voting for Democrats in this area for generations, and where's it gotten them?” he asked.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.