Acting Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin won Tuesday’s special election for West Virginia governor, beating out Bill Maloney, despite the Republican’s surge in pre-election polls.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday evening, Tomblin finished with a slim three-point margin, 50 percent to 47 percent.
Republicans had hoped for an upset in the race. Maloney, who started 33 points behind Tomblin in May polling, trailed by just a single point in a PPP poll released the day before the election. It was hoped that Maloney would ride that momentum to become the state’s third Republican governor in 30 years.
The Republican Governors Association made a serious effort to win the race, putting in money and running ads attacking Tomblin and tying him to President Barack Obama, who has a whopping 63 percent disapproval rating in the Mountain State.
Keith Appell, a Republican consultant, said part of the problem was with that strategy.
“When will Republicans learn that in West Virginia TV ads can move poll numbers but turnout programs win elections,” he said.
Even after the Associated Press called the election Tuesday evening, Maloney supporters at the campaign’s victory party did not concede defeat. Mark Sorsaia, a former county prosecutor, got on stage and asked people to remain optimistic.
“We’ve picked up 4,000 votes in the last ten minutes,” he said. “We’re still in the fight … this election’s not over.”
Tomblin had the support of both organized labor and business groups, sporting endorsements from the AFL-CIO and the United Mine Workers, as well as from the Chamber of Commerce and several other business organizations. (RELATED: Carney says W.Va. special election not a referendum on Obama)
With 94 percent of precincts reporting, Maloney and his family walked on stage to loud applause, and the Republican candidate gave a gracious concession speech.
“Although the race didn’t work out as we hoped, we’re proud of all that we accomplished,” he said.
“While our campaign ends today, the fight to move West Virginia forward must continue … I urge you to remain committed to a better West Virginia,” he continued.
“I just called Earl Ray and congratulated him. He won, and that proves the power of democracy… I urge all of you to work with him, when and where you can, and when you disagree, I urge you to make your voices heard.
“Opposition is the essence of democracy, but remain a loyal opposition, always,” Maloney concluded.
Mike Stuart, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party, said that while Republicans had lost the race, the narrow margin boded well for the future of the party.
“It was a very short election cycle, and we took a relative unknown, in fact he was an unknown,” Stuart said.
“The voters tonight voted for Earl Ray Tomblin by a small majority. And so I think the grand story out of this is that West Virginia is in the process of realignment. We may have conceded this evening, but we don’t surrender that the Republican Party is the party of West Virginia’s future,” he added.
“We’re incredibly encouraged by what Bill Maloney did in this campaign… We’re getting ready to compete next year, full speed ahead. And we’re going to hit some bumps in the road as we become the majority party, but we’re in no way going to slow down this train,” Stuart declared.
The results were indeed very tight compared to the last gubernatorial election in 2008, when Joe Manchin trounced his opponent Russell E. Weeks Jr., taking 69 percent of the vote to Weeks’ 25 percent.
Turnout was relatively low in the election. Out of 1.2 million registered voters, just over 300,000 turned out to vote, including early and absentee voters.
Tomblin touted the victory as a triumph over outside interest groups.
“We all came together to tell outside groups that no one is going to tell us what to do in West Virginia. We may be open for business, but West Virginia is not for sale!” Tomblin said.
“Tonight’s result is proof that West Virignians appreciate ideas, they value experience and they want our state to continue to move forward,” Tomblin said.
In one year, West Virginian voters will again go to the polls to vote for governor in a regularly scheduled election. Maloney has not yet ruled out a run in 2012.