CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As they prepare for the big contests of 2012, Democrats and Republicans alike are seizing on the results from West Virginia's special election for governor.
Gov.-elect Early Ray Tomblin kept the seat in the Democrats' column with his narrow win over GOP nominee Bill Maloney. With turnout just below 25 percent of registered voters, unofficial tallies give the veteran Logan County lawmaker just under 50 percent to Maloney's 47 percent.
"Even in the most competitive circumstances, Governor Tomblin was able to highlight his record of effectiveness and withstand Republican attempts to nationalize the race," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, said in a statement following Tuesday's results.
But Maloney was a first-time candidate when he came within around 8,000 votes of defeating Tomblin last week. As O'Malley noted, the GOP sought to remind voters that Tomblin hails from the same party as President Barack Obama. Just 33 percent of West Virginians approve of the job Obama is doing, his fifth-lowest rate among the states, according to Gallup.
"Even though we didn't win this time, the fact this race was so close is proof positive that West Virginia is in the middle of a profound political realignment, a realignment that will not stop today," state Republican Party Chairman Mike Stuart said in a post-election release.
The stakes are high for both parties. GOP presidential candidates have carried the state in three consecutive elections, and that hadn't happened since the 1920s. Republicans also captured a second of the state's U.S. House seats last year, one that Democrats had held since the late 1960s. That gave the GOP a majority in the state's delegation to that chamber since the late 1940s.
But Democrats held the U.S. Senate seat of the late Robert C. Byrd in 2010's special election. While losing some ground in the Legislature's House of Delegates, Democrats won nearly two-thirds of that chamber's 100 seats last year. They gained two state Senate seats to increase their share there to 28 of 34 seats.
Democrats dominate the other two branches of state government. Besides the governorship, they hold the five other statewide executive branch offices. At the state Supreme Court, four of the five justices are Democrats.
It is against this backdrop that West Virginians will elect much of their government in 2012: the entire House of Delegates, half the state Senate, two Supreme Court justices, and all six executive officers including governor. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin must run to hold the seat he won in last year's special election, and all three U.S. House members are on the ballot as well.
It's the top of the ticket that should worry state Democrats most, said Marybeth Beller, a political science professor at Marshall University. As Manchin had before him, Tomblin sought to deflect the GOP's Obama-themed attacks by focusing on the state's stable government finances and improving economy. Each framed his race as about local issues, distancing himself from an unpopular president who wasn't even on the ballot. With Obama seeking a second term in 2012, West Virginia Democrats face tough choices, she said.
"I think the Democratic Party is losing its unity," Beller said, adding that "By distancing themselves from the president, what message does that send to the Democratic base?"
Beller noted that other candidates on Tuesday's ballot together received just over 3 percent of the vote. At least some of those voters may have hailed from the Democrats' progressive wing, who found Tomblin too conservative or even too similar to Maloney, Beller said. She also noted how West Virginia allows straight-ticket voting, or selecting one party's entire roster of candidates with one mark on the ballot. Democrats can't rely on that with Obama running, she said.
"If you've got that kind of split in the party, straight-ticket voting is diminished," Beller said.
While stressing that one election does not make for a trend, Beller also sees other hopeful signs for Republicans. Tomblin carried his native southern coalfields, which provided his edge against Maloney. But Tomblin did best in counties there that are losing population. Maloney, meanwhile, beat Tomblin in the Eastern Panhandle, which has seen the most growth and was bombarded with GOP-funded TV attack ads the weekend before the special election.
"In the high population areas, we had a lot more Republican turnout or more Democrats voting Republican," Beller said. "The high growth areas are becoming, possibly, more Republican."
Democrats retain a majority among the state's voters, though barely. Nearly two-thirds of all voters were Democrats in 1996, the last year the state awarded its electoral votes to that party's presidential nominee. The share of Democratic voters has gradually slid since then, to just below 53 percent heading into last week's special election.
But that drop hasn't meant a boon for the GOP. Its share of voters remains at 28 percent, roughly where it was in 1996. Democrats no longer outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1, but the ratio remains close to that.
The real growth has been among unaffiliated voters. They represented just below 7 percent of voters in 1996, but now hold a share exceeding 18 percent. Their ranks have more than tripled, to nearly 221,000, during this time. This swelling of numbers explains why the GOP share is largely unchanged and the Democratic portion has shrunk even though both parties actually have more voters now than in 1996.
For James White, a political science professor at Concord University, low voter turnout characterizes the special election results. He compares the votes cast to the number of voting-age adults, rather than registered voters. That could bode well for Democrats next year, he said, though he also cautions against over-interpreting Tuesday's outcome.
"The voters in this election look a lot like the primary electorate. If everybody votes, the Democrats win," White said, adding that "When you have a low turnout election, you have an electorate that is passionate and divided, because they care."
Negative ads helped keep voters home, White believes. Both Tomblin and Maloney attacked each other with them, as did national party groups on their behalf. While the candidates won't report their final spending until mid-November, The Republican Governors Association outspent its DGA-funded counterpart during the race. Each group aired only negative ads. White questions why Tomblin went negative, when he could have instead amplified his upbeat message.
"I tell my students, if we sold soft drinks and fast food this ways, nobody would drink Coke or Pepsi or eat fast food and people would be a lot healthier," White said. "That's how politics works."
Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/lmessina