Hoppy’s Commentary for Monday

The 2012 West Virginia Governor’s race will likely be a rematch between Democratic incumbent Earl Ray Tomblin and Republican Bill Maloney.  Tomblin narrowly beat Maloney in last year’s special election by 2.5 percent or 7,500 votes.

Campaigns take on a life of their own, so it’s hard to say what issues will develop, but here are four early keys to think about:

The cracker: West Virginia is in the running for one or more giant natural gas processing facilities known as crackers.   As many as 12,000 jobs could be created through the construction and operation of the cracker, with even more jobs in downstream businesses.

Tomblin has been lobbying Shell and an unidentified second company to pick West Virginia over Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Last Thursday, Tomblin met with Shell officials in Houston, taking with him a copy of a new law he signed that morning providing a multi-million dollar property tax break for the company if the cracker comes here.

If Shell, or another company, chooses West Virginia, Tomblin’s speechwriter will cut and paste the cracker story in every script.  Tomblin will be able to say that he’s lowered taxes (the business franchise tax, the corporate net and the food tax all came down at the first of the year) and landed the cracker. 

It’s a guaranteed applause line.

But what if the cracker goes to Ohio or Pennsylvania?  Then Maloney will have some material for his message of change.  He will say that had the state’s business climate been better, Shell might have made a different decision.

The Obama factor:  President Obama will be a drag on the Democratic ticket this year in West Virginia, but how much?   Democratic voters could vote for the Republican nominee, then move to the Democratic side, or they could leave the top of the ticket blank and then vote for Tomblin and other Democrats down ticket.

That’s what Tomblin is hoping for.

But there is also the real possibility that Democratic voters who won’t vote for Obama will stay home, suppressing the votes that would have helped Tomblin.  If the polls show the race is close, national Republican money may come in like it did in last year’s special election to pay for ads attempting to link Tomblin with Obama.

The southern vote: Tomblin won the special election last year because of his strength in the southern counties.  He carried Logan—his home county—by a 12-1 margin and the rest of the southern counties by about a 3-1 margin on his way to the narrow win.

Maloney didn’t campaign in southern West Virginia, so he barely moved the needle. He’s expected to spend more time below Route 60 this time, and that could change the outcome of the race.

While Tomblin won big in the southern counties, turnout was light.  Minus Logan, the turnout averaged just 21 percent in the nine southern-most counties that backed Tomblin.  That’s four percent below the statewide turnout.

So, even though Tomblin carried the south, he still underperformed.  The south is heavily Democratic, and Tomblin has to find a way to get more of those voters out, while Maloney cannot simply cede the region to Tomblin.

Berkeley County: This eastern county is now the second largest in the state, and narrowly Republican.  Maloney won Berkeley by 2,100 votes. But, just like southern West Virginia for Tomblin, Berkeley has a lot of untapped potential for Maloney.

Berkeley’s turnout was only 18 percent.  Maloney got just under 6,700 votes.  Assuming the vast majority of those were Republicans and Independents, Maloney left a pool of over 30,000 potential votes untapped.

Depending on what develops over the next eight months, the cracker, Obama, the southern counties and Berkeley County may be the keys to the outcome of the rematch.


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