Dems win a tough one in West Virginia

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?”