A special election for the governor's office in West Virginia is too close to call as voters head to the polls Tuesday in what may be the latest example of how President Obama's struggles are weighing down his party.
Strategists on both sides agree that the race, static for much of the year, has tightened in the last week. That movement coincides with a late television advertisement paid for by the Republican Governors Assn. that injected the issue of Obama's health reform law into the contest.
The election was spurred by Democrat Joe Manchin's resignation last year after he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Fellow Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin, now serving as acting governor, faces Republican businessman Bill Maloney to fill the unexpired term.
A Public Policy Polling survey released Monday showed Tomblin with a 47% to 46% lead, with 7% undecided. Tomblin had a 6% advantage in September, findings that resemble the campaigns' internal surveys.
"Bill Maloney’s biggest enemy at this point is time," PPP's Dean Debnam said.
Tomblin has built some modest accomplishments in his brief tenure, and has run a jobs-focused campaign. But he has had little time to respond to the late television ad from national Republicans linking him to Obama, whose approval ratings in West Virginia are among his lowest nationwide.
"A majority of America's governors are fighting in court to stop Obamacare. But Earl Ray Tomblin is implementing Obamacare in West Virginia," the ad says. "Stop Obama. Stop Tomblin from implementing Obamacare."
It was only three weeks ago that a Republican won a special congressional election in the Democratic-leaning 9th District of New York. Though Democrats fielded a weak candidate, Republicans had a potent issue to run on, using Obama's handling of Mideast peace negotiations to lobby a sizable block of Jewish voters.
Tomblin's closing ad featured Manchin, who easily won election twice as governor and held off a spirited challenge in his bid for Senate in 2010 (remember him shooting the cap-and-trade bill?). The choice reflected the degree to which West Virginia Democrats have continued to thrive at the state level even as the state has skewed Republican in federal contests.
"Bill Maloney and the RGA have tried to make this race about the president, but West Virginians understand that Gov. Tomblin has been an independent leader for them in the vein of Joe Manchin," Democratic Governors Assn. spokeswoman Lis Smith said.
According to state filings, the RGA has spent $3.4 million on Maloney's behalf — including the blitz on healthcare that stretched even into the more expensive Washington market. National Democrats have spent $2.45 million.
Democrats were heartened by what they say were stronger-than-expected returns in early voting. Turnout is a major concern, however, given the unusual timing of the race.
West Virginia's election is the first of four gubernatorial elections in 2011. The incumbents — a Democrat in Kentucky and a Republican in Louisiana — are heavily favored to win reelection. Republicans will likely hold the open-seat governorship in Mississippi.