Charleston, W. Va.

“There are still people who think this election is in November,” says Bill Maloney, the Republican candidate for governor, at his campaign headquarters downtown late last week. “Even some of our friends!”

Maloney is hoping to win tomorrow’s special election for governor. His Democratic opponent is Earl Ray Tomblin, the state senate president for the last 16 years and a fixture in the West Virginia politics since the 1970s. Maloney, on the other hand, is a businessman and a political rookie who won a surprising primary victory earlier this year against a former secretary of state.

“During the primary we were down fourteen points in the last week,” says Maloney.

These days, the trends are going in his direction. According to an April survey by Public Policy Polling, Maloney was a staggering 33 points behind Tomblin. Three weeks ago, Tomblin’s lead was cut down to six points, and today PPP calls the race a toss-up, with Maloney down by just one point.

“The more people learn about us, the more people like us,” says Maloney. An engineer and an entrepreneur in the mining and drilling industries, Maloney developed “Plan B,” which contributed to the rescue of the 33 trapped Chilean miners last year. Born in Syracuse, he moved to Charleston after graduating from Lehigh University and now lives in Morgantown.

Tomblin, by contrast, has spent a lifetime in politics. A native of Logan County in southern West Virginia, he was first elected to the state house of delegates in 1974 and won his state senate seat in 1980. Tomblin has been senate president since 1995.

Both men are running to finish the term of former governor Joe Manchin, who resigned last year to fill the U.S. Senate seat of the late Robert Byrd. Tomblin took over as acting governor in November, and a unanimous ruling by the state’s supreme court determined he couldn’t serve as governor for more than a year without an election. Whoever wins tomorrow will have to run again in 2012 for a full term, when President Obama will be at the top of the ticket.

The campaign signs for this race show that Tomblin is already distancing himself from Obama, who is very unpopular among West Virginians. “Earl Ray Tomblin for Governor: More Jobs, Lower Taxes,” a large banner stretched across a barn along Interstate 79 reads. Tomblin hits on this theme when speaking with supporters in Clarksburg and Fairmont, noting a new cut to sales taxes on food and touting recent corporate expansions in the state from companies like Macy’s and Amazon. He tells me he supports Congress repealing parts of the Obama health care law, like the IRS 1099 mandate for business owners and the individual health insurance mandate.

That hasn’t stopped Republicans from suggesting Tomblin isn’t as conservative as he claims to be. The Republican Governors’ Association has been running a television ad attacking Tomblin for not supporting any of the lawsuits challenging Obamacare in court, as many other states are doing.

“That is the law of the land,” Tomblin says when asked why he isn’t challenging Obamacare. “I’m not concentrating on Washington, I’m concentrating on my record.”

Tomblin’s guilt by association with Obama and the national Democrats may not entirely explain his slide in the polls. His predecessor Manchin, after all, is a conservative Democrat who remains among the most popular political figures in the state’s recent history, despite GOP efforts to link the senator to his party’s liberal leaders.

Tomblin, though, is tainted by charges that’s he’s at the center of Charleston’s good ol’ boy network. The Maloney campaign has pointed to Tomblin’s ties to the state greyhound racing industry as an example. As senate president, Tomblin supported creating a state subsidy program for greyhound breeders, funded by video lottery revenues. According to a report in the Charleston Daily Mail, since 2000 a total of $2.5 million of this money has gone to a breeding company owned by Tomblin’s mother, Freda. Tomblin himself denies any wrongdoing, calling such claims “totally false,” but the polls reflect that the tag of corruption may be sticking.

Of course, Maloney has had ample political hurdles of his own. His ubiquitous “Democrats for Maloney” signs reflect the fact that a large majority of voters in West Virginia are registered Democrats. George W. Bush won here in both 2000 and 2004, and in 2008 John McCain won the state by an even larger margin than Bush ever did. “West Virginians are conservative folks by nature,” says Maloney. “We think very conservatively, we think like Republicans.”

But West Virginia is still dominated by the Democratic party. Only two Republicans have been elected governor since the Great Depression. Democrats have had a majority in the state house of delegates since 1930 and in the state senate since 1932. The legacy of the New Deal looms large. “I’m a ‘D’,” says Tony Albiani, an 81-year-old retiree in Clarksburg. “When you open the mailbox and see that Social Security check, remember who got that for you. That was FDR.”

So how does a Republican businessman make his case? Maloney’s message is that business as usual has left the state behind. West Virginia has a relatively high poverty rate and an average household income of just over $37,000, and unemployment has ticked up over the last year. Maloney says the combination of an inconsistent tax code and an anti-business court system means domestic businesses can’t grow and out-of-state companies are afraid to locate here. “We don’t have one company headquartered in West Virginia on the New York Stock Exchange,” he says.

And Tomblin, Maloney argues, wants government to solve the problem. He cited the moment where, two days before Obama’s speech to Congress last month, Tomblin said in a debate that he hoped the president’s forthcoming job plan would have stimulus money for West Virginia.

“So that’s the contrast: I’m going to fight Obama and his EPA,” Maloney says. “Earl Ray’s not going to do it. He likes stimulus money. He likes more government.”

But don’t West Virginians like Tony Albiani also like more government? Maloney admits it’s taken longer for his fellow citizens to get the message. “It’s like we missed the Reagan Revolution here,” he says, shaking his head slightly. “But it’s changing. People get it.”

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