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After two September special election losses, Democrats are looking for a slice of good news. But what smelled like Democratic victory in West Virginia just a week ago is now far from certain, and even a win in today's gubernatorial contest shouldn't provide much solace to Democrats nationwide.
No matter which party wins, political strategists will have to resist building the results into a mountain from a molehill.
Throughout the summer and into the fall, acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) led wealthy businessman Bill Maloney (R) in a race distinguished by its lack of movement and activity. One GOP strategist described it as one of the "sleepiest races" he'd ever seen.
But in the final days of the contest opened by Joe Manchin's election to the Senate, Republicans tried to tie Tomblin to President Barack Obama, Maloney was plagued by extortion headlines and a final poll showed the race in a dead heat.
The Democratic Public Policy Polling survey, conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 2, showed Tomblin with a statistically insignificant edge over Maloney, 47 percent to 46 percent. If correct, the poll is significant because previous public and private surveys showed Tomblin with a lead, even though there were a high number of undecided voters.
Because Tomblin weathered GOP attacks on his personal record, the Republican Governors Association decided to make a last-minute grab for the undecideds with a television ad that accused him of implementing "Obamacare" while other governors across the country fought the president's legislation.
Whether it was the connection to Obama (who is deeply unpopular in the state) or the fact that the RGA went on the air unanswered in the expensive Washington, D.C., media market covering approximately 15 percent of the West Virginia electorate for a week, it appears that the ad changed the race's trajectory.
"This is a special election where momentum is critical," RGA Executive Director Phil Cox told Roll Call. "And momentum is clearly on our side."
PPP showed Tomblin with a 15-point lead in May and a 6-point advantage a month ago. The latest poll is significant because approximately half of the interviews were conducted after Democrats tried to implicate the Maloney campaign in an extortion case that broke on Friday.
Up until the final week, spending on both sides was fairly even. But since this year's other gubernatorial contests are a combination of long shots (Mississippi), no shots (Louisiana) and not happening (Kentucky), the RGA had some extra money to spend in the Mountain State.
On one level, the race looked more promising for Republicans. They were challenging a career politician who has been in office for more than 30 years with a wealthy businessman who had a good story to tell. With a background in the mining industry, Maloney helped craft the plan that rescued the Chilean miners last year.
Obama's West Virginia job approval rating was just 28 percent, compared with 63 percent that disapproved in the PPP poll. That's why Tomblin countered the final RGA attacks with an endorsement ad featuring Manchin, who remains popular with a 61 percent job approval rating in the PPP survey, including a majority of Republicans.