West Virginians head to the polls today to nominate candidates for governor in a special election triggered by the death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate.
Byrd’s death last summer and the subsequent election of then-Gov. Joe Manchin to fill the remainder of the 92-year-old lawmaker’s Senate term, set off a series of legal fireworks involving the remainder of Manchin’s gubernatorial term, a dispute that was finally settled by West Virginia’s Supreme Court in January.
It wasn’t until early February that state lawmakers finally set the date for Saturday’s primary election.
Voters in both major parties will be faced with a plethora of candidates when they enter the voting booths today. There are fourteen candidates in all.
Earl Ray Tomblin, who as Senate President assumed the role of acting governor when Manchin left for Washington last November, is favored on the Democratic side, but faces a spirited challenge from Rick Thompson, Speaker of the House of Delegates.
The 59-year-old Tomblin, who spent 36 years in the state legislature — half of them as President of the Senate — leads Thompson, who enjoys the backing of the 75,000-member state AFL-CIO and the powerful United Mine Workers of America, by thirteen percentage points in a Public Policy Polling survey released Thursday.
An attorney who grew up in poverty, Thompson has been a member of the House of Delegates since 2000 and became Speaker seven years later.
Thompson, 58, was only polling 6 percent when he entered the race in January, but has been surging in the campaign’s final weeks and is likely the only candidate in the race with even a remote chance of pulling a major upset in today’s balloting.
Other Democrats in the race include Jeff Kessler, who succeeded Tomblin as Senate President, State Treasurer John Perdue and Secretary of State Natalie E. Tennant, who has been endorsed by Emily’s List. Tennant received 17 percent in the recent poll conducted by the Raleigh, North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling.
A sixth candidate, Arne Moltis, a 61-year-old South Charleston landlord, is also in the hunt but isn’t expected to be a factor.
Featuring eight candidates, the crowded Republican field has turned into a horserace between Betty Ireland, the state’s first elected female Secretary of State, and Morgantown businessman Bill Maloney, who helped develop the drilling technique that led to the rescue last October of 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped for 69 days following a devastating mine collapse in northern Chile.
Polls show them running neck-and-neck. Maloney had trailed Ireland by as many as 14 percentage points just a few weeks ago.
Outnumbered by nearly two-to-one in voter registration, the Republicans haven’t won a gubernatorial contest in West Virginia since 1996 when the late Cecil H. Underwood — the youngest and oldest person ever elected governor of the Mountain State — defeated Democrat Charlotte Pritt.
Incumbent Joe Manchin captured 69.8% of the vote in demolishing his Republican opponent in 2008.
The winners of Saturday’s primaries will be joined on the October 4 general election ballot by the Mountain Party’s Bob Henry Baber, a 60-year-old award-winning Appalachian poet and former mayor of Richwood. Baber, who previously sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1996, is making his second bid for the state’s highest office. The Mountain Party is the West Virginia affiliate of the Green Party.