Republicans look for an upset in special election for West Virginia governor

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Republicans in West Virginia are looking for an upset in Tuesday’s special election for governor that would send the third Republican to the executive mansion since 1929.

Democratic acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Republican businessman Bill Maloney are vying to fill the seat vacated by former Gov. Joe Manchin, who was elected to the U.S. Senate following the death of former Sen. Robert Byrd.

For the past few months, Tomblin has held a solid lead in the polls. In May — before the primary — Tomblin led Maloney by fifteen points according to a Public Policy Polling poll. At the beginning of September, PPP found that Maloney had tightened the gap to just six points. And on Monday, PPP declared that the election was “too close to call,” releasing a poll that found Maloney had continued to surge and now trailed Tomblin by just a single point.

Polls, however, obscure a major factor in a special elections: Turnout. In West Virginia, that’s something that usually works in favor of Democrats. Not only does the party have a registration advantage, but they know how to get their voters to the polls. The state’s Democratic Party and organized labor — specifically the AFL-CIO and the United Mine Workers — have a very effective turnout operation that has made it especially difficult for a Republican to win races for governor or U.S. Senate.

For instance, a source pointed out, in the special election to replace Robert Byrd, polls had Manchin and Republican John Raese in a tight race. But Democrats got their voters to the polls, and Manchin pulled it off by an eight-point margin. A Republican, therefore, would have to have a 5 to 10-point lead in the polls to compensate for that.

Tomblin certainly appears to have the advantage. He has been endorsed by both labor groups and the Chamber of Commerce, an odd combination that sources say reflects the sense by traditionally Republican business groups that a Democratic win is inevitable.

But Republican observers suggest that this time around, that is not the case.

“In an election that is probably forecasted to have a turnout between 15 and 20 percent, the candidate with the more committed supporters is the one who’s going to be victorious, and there are a number of indications which suggests Bill Maloney has the more committed supporters,” said David Avella, a West Virginia native and president of GOPAC.

“You don’t see the labor unions putting in the effort that they have done in the past for the Democrats,” he added.

“Historically, when the unions and the Democratic Party operation team up, they have a very effective get-out-the-vote operation,” he said. “Team that with their … voter registration advantage, and it makes it very challenging for Republicans. But there does not seem to be the union activity that is traditional,” such as members knocking on doors, doing direct mail or airing television ads. “You don’t see that level of activity over there this year,” he said.

Mike Stuart, Chairman of the West Virginia GOP, had a similar take on the situation.

“We’re incredibly enthusiastic about this campaign,” he said.

“Labor union support for Earl Ray Tomblin is much softer” than it usually is, said Stuart, noting that during the primary, the AFL-CIO ran ads against the acting governor. Though the group has now endorsed Tomblin, Stuart opined that, “The rank and file don’t exactly fall in line.”

“I’ve been around this for a long time,” Stuart said. “Usually at this point I have a pretty good sense at the way things are playing. The body language of the other side at this point — we’re seeing more signs of desperation, we’re seeing more kinds of concern … more outrageous press releases from the other side.”

“The only thing left to see is if there’s a run on shredders at OfficeMax and Staples,” Stuart joked, saying that would be “the sealing indicator that things are going our direction.”

Derek Scarbro, executive director of the West Virginia Democratic Party, said he had not seen any fall off in support from labor.

“We are finding very high levels of support for the [acting] governor amongst Democrats,” he said. “We’re not having an enthusiasm problem.”

“He’s got a pretty broad coalition behind him,” Scarbro said of Tomblin. “Every organization that makes endorsements in the state has pretty much endorsed Tomblin, be it labor, be it business,” he added.

Turning out voters, he said, is the primary concern.

“I think our biggest enemy is just an unusual date, an irregular date.”

“West Virginia’s just not really used to having special elections … People are not used to an October 4 date, so we’re combating a great deal of lack of information,” he added, noting that a large part of the party’s work had been to simply make people aware that an election was happening.

Early voting, he noted, had favored Democrats. Of the 57,113 people who voted early or by absentee ballot, just over 56 percent of those were registered Democrats, and just over 34 percent were registered Republicans, a statistic that bodes well for Tomblin.

But it is worth noting that early voting statistics do not tell who someone voted for — just what their party registration is. PPP’s latest poll found that 24 percent of Democrats had said they would vote support Maloney, a number that had increased since the last poll, suggesting that some of those Democrats, though not an overwhelming number, might have voted for Maloney.

Then, there is the Obama factor. Sixty-three percent of West Virginians disapprove of President Barack Obama’s job performance. Even among Democrats, he has just a 45 percent approval rating, with 44 percent saying they disapprove. The Republican Governors Association (RGA) made an active play to tie Tomblin to Obama in their most recent television ad that highlights the acting governor’s support for Obamacare.

Avella said that tying Tomblin to Obama was an effective campaign strategy “because it gives voters the opportunity to send a message that they don’t want Obama Democrats pushing the agenda that the president is trying to pass.”

Another source suggested, however, that while the so-called Obama drag might show up in polls, a successful turnout operation on the Democratic side could easily nullify that. Moreover, the source noted, one of the peculiarities of West Virginia politics is that voters who will vote Democratic in a governor’s race or a senate race, will not necessarily vote for a Democratic presidential candidate because there are a lot of points where West Virginia Democrats disagree with the national Democratic Party.

Nonetheless, if Tomblin loses the election, it likely spells trouble for Obama, who is already receiving some of the blame for how tight the race is.

The RGA has thrown a lot of money into the race, and communications director Mike Schrimpf was optimistic, saying that the momentum of the race was in Maloney’s favor.

“Momentum is everything in politics, especially in special elections,” he said. “And there’s no doubt right now that the momentum is with Maloney.”

Nonetheless, he cautioned, “[West Virginia Republicans] do need to get out and vote if they want to win.”

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