Democrats Hold On in West Virginia

The president’s battered party fended off the GOP tonight in a special election for governor of West Virginia. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who took office when Joe Manchin ascended to the Senate, narrowly defeated businessman Bill Maloney.

This was an election that could never be repeated at the national level. West Virginia is one of the last states with a strong, conservative base of registered Democrats. Tomblin, like Manchin, ran and governed far to Barack Obama’s right. (I was watching the election returns with an AFL-CIO member who reminded me that Tomblin has a sub-40% issue rating from the union.) Tomblin, like Manchin, won the support of the Chamber of Commerce and the NRA – and even with that, he had to prevail in a dogfight against a first-time candidate. What was once a 30-point lead was whittled down, probably, to 2 points.

Is there a national lesson to take out of here? Sort of. In the last week of the campaign, the Republican Governors Association – which is looking at easy wins next month in Louisana and Mississippi, and a loss in Kentucky – bought a big, final round of ads in the market that covers Republican-leaning eastern West Virginia. Eight of the twelve counties carried by John Raese, the surprisingly competitive frequent candidate who challenged Manchin, were in this market. The attack: Vote for Maloney to send a message to Obama on health care.

This didn’t give Maloney the boost he needed. Raese won Berkeley County with 55%; Maloney won it with 62%. In Morgan, it was Raese 56%, Maloney 62%. In Hardy, it was Raese 54%, Maloney 55%. In Grant, it was Raese 72%, Maloney 76%. In Pendleton, it was Raese 56%, Maloney 57%. He improved, but not enough to overcome Maloney’s statewide lead – and he improved better on Raese in other parts of the state. In Monongalia, where Morgantown is located – and where even Obama won – Maloney was on track to beat Tomblin by 18 points.

But this election, with few national implications, is over. Its meaning for 2012: Obama still doesn’t have a chance in West Virginia, and Tomblin’s poor showing in the long-Democratic district now held by Rep. David McKinley probably has the DCCC looking elsewhere as it dreams about taking the House.