Political Animal


October 05, 2011 8:00 AM Dems win a tough one in West Virginia

By Steve Benen

Voters in West Virginia went to the polls yesterday to elect a governor, and Republicans invested heavily in trying to nationalize the race. President Obama is deeply unpopular in this conservative state, and GOP ads were based almost entirely on tying the Democratic candidate to the White House. (That there was no meaningful connection was apparently unimportant.)

Given the Republican strategy, some in the media seemed eager to seize on the race as an example of a president facing a political crisis. Mark Halperin conceded overnight, “If the GOPer had won, the national narrative would have been that Obama was the issue.” Coming on the heels of two Democratic defeats in congressional special elections, the “Dems in disarray” coverage was going to be intense.

It looks like West Virginians spoiled the media’s fun by voting for the Dem anyway.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, narrowly won a special election for governor on Tuesday, successfully defending himself against Republican attacks that tried to link him with President Obama and his health care overhaul.

With about 94 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Tomblin led his Republican opponent, Bill Maloney, by about 3 percentage points, according to the Web site of the West Virginia Secretary of State.

It was a slim victory in a hard-fought race that was seen as a test for Democrats.

The efforts of the Republican Governors Association were of particular interest. With gubernatorial races in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana proving to be uncompetitive, the RGA devoted considerable resources to the West Virginia race, spending in upwards of $5 million in anti-Obama attack ads. The party not only hoped to win an off-year race and lend fuel to a national media narrative, but also saw this as a test run for a plan that could be utilized here and elsewhere in 2012.

But it didn’t work out. Maloney came on strong in the race’s closing weeks, but Tomblin won anyway, and the areas of the state where the RGA ads ran the most seemed largely unaffected by the anti-Obama push. Indeed, Republicans ended up outspending Democrats in this race by a wide margin — roughly a two-to-one margin — but to no avail.

What do the results tell us about next year’s election cycle? Not much. West Virginia Dems — both voters and candidates — tend to be well to the right of the national party, and it’s a safe bet that Obama-Biden 2012 will not include the state on its list of targets. Tomblin’s victory reinforces the perception that Sen. Joe Manchin (D) is a safe bet to win a full term next year, but that’s probably about it.

Still, had the race gone the other way, the ferocity of the media’s “Dems are reeling everywhere!” message would have been hard to miss. I won’t hold my breath looking for stories asking, “Does the win in West Virginia point to a Democratic comeback?”

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • c u n d gulag on October 05, 2011 8:09 AM:

    It's good that a Red Dog Democrat won (there's not much blue about 'em), otherwise the narrative would have been intolorable.

    There's 13 months to go, and a lot can change.

    In the meantime, we all need to realize that we can't sit on our asses and hope for the best.
    We need to work for better, more Libersl, Democrats, while supporting the ones we've got.

  • walt on October 05, 2011 8:11 AM:

    I fully understand that politics now is racialized class warfare as practiced by the Republican Party. It's why West
    Virginia has become a red state. But I'm still scratching my head why health care reform would be unpopular in a state where liberalism dramatically raised living standards. Granted, much of the state is living inside a Hank Williams, Jr song. But don't these people ever think?

  • Danp on October 05, 2011 8:15 AM:

    (That there was no meaningful connection was apparently unimportant.)

    Most of the ads said little more than, "What did Tomblin do to combat the new Obamacare law? Nothing!" I didn't see a single positive ad from either candidate. Half the Republicans I know forgot to vote. I doubt most of them could have named their candidate.

  • Danp on October 05, 2011 8:21 AM:

    But I'm still scratching my head why health care reform would be unpopular in a state where...

    That's the funny thing. It's really not that unpopular. There is a deep distrust of government here, and there are a LOT of what I call birth-defect Dems and Reps ("My grandaddy would roll over in his grave if I switched parties."). But in terms of the ACA and even more Medicare and S/S, most people seem to be much more in line with Obama than Reps. And that may explain why the attacks against Obama and Tomblin are so vapid.

  • berttheclock on October 05, 2011 8:23 AM:

    Whey! Now, to which conference will Oliver Luck take WVA?

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on October 05, 2011 8:24 AM:

    Walt "But don't these people ever think?"
    They don't need to think, they have the crew on Fox and Friends to do it for them. I ALWAYS turn to Steve , Brian and Gretchen for in depth analysis.spulesb your

  • DAY on October 05, 2011 8:29 AM:

    The tried and true way to win an election is to denigrate the opposition. Much easier than having a viable plan of your own.
    When the masses are FINALLY mad as hell and not gonna take it any more, a charismatic leader emerges (Obama in 2008, that German guy in the 30's) and seizes power. The not so loyal opposition here saw what happened over there, and came up with a plan to stop our latter day FDR in his tracks. It will be up to the voter next Fall if the GOP is successful.

    I predict that the burgeoning "tea party on the left"- too nascent to even have a name, or a written down agenda-will be a powerful force in the immediate future.
    Already the media's unease at their antics is causing confusion among the rulers. That it has spread from Wall Street to other cities- and now, other countries- and has attracted union support, shows just what a ground swell there is for change. Dare I say it, for Democracy?

  • Mudge on October 05, 2011 8:32 AM:

    I have never seen a more negative campaign. Every Republican TV ad and all of the direct mailed print ads (there were many of those) was an attack on Tomlin. I defy anyone to actually tell me what Maloney's policy views were, other than hate for Tomlin. Some early Tomlin ads were positive, but they became all negative later.

    The "Obamacare" ads were hilarious, although certainly 27% of the voters took them seriously. Tomlin wasn't even governor when it was passed. Manchin was.

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on October 05, 2011 8:45 AM:

    Day "Dare I say it, for Democracy?"
    You may say it .
    Bloomberg's predictions about disillusioned unemployed youth and others starting an "Arab Spring" here in the Ol U S of A seem to be coming true.
    Even with the pushback from the MSM (check out Faux News.com ...booga booga booga be afraid)
    They are worried , trust me .
    This is going to be the anti war movement on steriods , and I think the common theme that we have ALL been fucked by wall Street while they sit pretty, will ignite a populist backing.

  • John Dillinger on October 05, 2011 8:54 AM:

    You fellers need to look at the small print of the health care reform act, wherein in specifies that to be eligible for any coverage, you have to turn in all your guns and all your neighbors' guns.

  • wvng on October 05, 2011 9:04 AM:

    The assault against Tomblin was pure race baiting. Sadly, that works very well in my state, or else the election wouldn't have been close.

    I think the republicans secretly see this as a win, a test run of a tactic. I think this is exactly what elections throughout rural America, particularly Appalachia, will look like next year. Putting any white Dem candidate next to "that black man" works here.

  • delNorte on October 05, 2011 9:13 AM:

    Bloomberg's predictions about disillusioned unemployed youth and others starting an "Arab Spring" here in the Ol U S of A seem to be coming true.

    My new mantra: This movement has to culminate in "Occupy DC" - put up a tent city "Boehnerville" on the National Mall, and don't leave until "Washington" starts doing what's best for those outside the Beltway.

  • blondie on October 05, 2011 9:31 AM:

    Well, my husband and I are heading to Washington - from West Virginia - on Friday to join OccupyDC. I can't wait!

    My sign will read "Democracy is a muscle exercised by STANDING UP!"

  • Kathryn on October 05, 2011 10:02 AM:

    Don't know if there is any hope for West Virginia, have a friend from there who is retired from working with IRS and she can't convince her relatives that the "death tax" doesn't apply to them. Sen. Manchin has been playing to their prejudices since he was sworn in, no profile in courage he, needs to get reelected in 2012. Sad to say, racism is a big problem, too many white folks are infected by irrational dislike of African-Americans having power, it's quite sad really and standard operating procedure for Republicans is to scare and encourage that fear. Like to think honesty from elected Democrats would help, focusing on the desperate need for Social Security, Medicare, etc. being attacked by the party of the 1 percent would penetrate, along with some frank words about mind set of too many West Virginians being played by rich cynics. Generations of certain views probably take generations to change, not there yet, I fear.

  • Rich on October 05, 2011 11:34 AM:

    They blew through a ton of money in the very expensive DC media market, presumably to reach the Eastern panhandle, an area that has been slowly becoming a DC exurb. They must have figured that it could turn a close election. I guess it didn't. If they have that kind of money to spend, they should be forced to spend it on races they don't expect to be competitive.

  • pea on October 05, 2011 3:41 PM:

    What this tells us is that the Rs won't rely merely on buying ads to misinform voters. They will have to manipulate who gets to vote and which/how votes are counted. So we need to start NOW to get everyone registered despite all the hurdles they've erected. (DNC, are you listening?) But what can we do to secure the vote counting process??? Once Rs claim victory (recall FL), it's over, even if we can eventually prove fraud 2 wks or 2 yrs later.

  • Yeshli on October 05, 2011 8:09 PM:

    People shouldn't really consider this to be a significant win for Democrats because this candidate happens to be a very conservative democrat. Listen to his speech after he got elected.

  • pencarrow on October 05, 2011 10:05 PM:

    The way it was reported in the New Orleans Times-Pic, was that Tomblin won because he distanced himself from Obama.

    So, it's unclear to me that the Dems can get any satisfaction from this win from a presidential politics perspective.

  • yellowdog on October 05, 2011 11:36 PM:

    I wonder why we aren't seeing lots of Republicans-in-disarray stories, based on this one data point. All the Dems-in-disarray stories were probably primed and ready to go last week, just waiting for this election to go the GOP's way. Maybe there are stories running like:

    -Republicans spend big, lose in red state...
    -Republicans try hard, fail to make Obama an issue in WV race
    -WV rejects Republican alternative
    -Mountaineers don't buy GOP nonsense
    -WV refuses to be bought by GOP ad money
    -GOP offers division, distraction to voters; skeptical voters don't buy it, want jobs instead

    Any one of those would do.

  • Black on October 05, 2011 11:51 PM:

    Its certainly a win for the Dems. I would like to have seen some analysis of why Tomblin won rather than a "the Republican strategy failed" narrative. Not being familiar with West Virgina politics it would have been enlightening to see if local issues/governance was successful in trumping national disdain for Democrats.

    I also have to wonder how hard (or at all) Tomblin worked to distance himself from Obama.