CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin overcame weeks of Republican attack ads to win the West Virginia governor's race Tuesday, successfully distancing himself from the Obama administration and the president's health care plan.
Tomblin, who has been acting governor for the past year, will finish the final year of a term left vacant by Joe Manchin, a well-liked governor who stepped down after he won a U.S. Senate seat.
The race was fraught with negative ads from both sides and narrowed in the final weeks. The national parties spent millions of dollars on each campaign.
With 96 percent of precincts reporting, Tomblin had 50 percent of the vote compared with Republican Bill Maloney's 47 percent, according to unofficial results.
Tomblin campaigned as the rightful heir to Manchin. He said together they helped shape policies that created pain-free balanced budgets and revenue surpluses at a time when other states continued to struggle during the recession.
"We tried to stay on message as much as possible," Tomblin told to The Associated Press before addressing his supporters Tuesday night. "We do have a stable budget and a stable economy in West Virginia. That's what people are looking for."
A veteran state lawmaker, Tomblin fended off questions about his mother's greyhound breeding business and efforts to tie him to Obama. Republicans were upset Tomblin didn't join a majority of other states who sued the administration over the health care plan.
Obama lost West Virginia in 2008 and remains wildly unpopular here, but Tomblin got a replay of last year's U.S. Senate special election, when Manchin beat back efforts to tie him to Obama.
Democrats outnumber the GOP by nearly 2-to-1 in West Virginia, but they are considered more conservative than their national counterparts on both social and fiscal issues, supporting gun rights and cutting taxes.
Maloney called to congratulate Tomblin before conceding the race at a gathering of campaign backers in Morgantown, where he has been a drilling engineer and became a millionaire businessman. The political newcomer said he started the race with "zero name ID, zero traction and zero chance."
"All along the way, the insiders were lined up against us, but that didn't matter to me because I wasn't running for them, I was running for you."
The Obama ads featured images of the president floating on the screen with Tomblin. One spot asks: "What's Gov. Tomblin doing about Obamacare? Absolutely nothing."
Of at least 21 spots that aired, 15 were attack ads. The negative ads turned Dushyant Shekhawat against Maloney.
"He's not fighting against Tomblin; he's fighting against Obama. That I don't like. He should concentrate his run against Tomblin," said Shekhawat, a federal employee at the National Energy Technology Laboratory.
The link to the president resonated with Mark Gingerich, who voted for Maloney.
"I think it's important right now to have a conservative Republican governor because the states are going to have to do something together to do away with Obamacare, the socialized medicine," Gingerich said.
Tomblin, meanwhile, used ads to blame Maloney for sending jobs to Pennsylvania when the drilling firm he co-founded moved there. But the relocation came four years after Maloney sold his shares in the company.
Tomblin wasn't as well known as Manchin, who resigned during his second term to fill the vacancy created by the death of 92-year-old U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd. Tomblin became acting governor because of his position as Senate president, a job he held longer than anyone else in the state.
Tomblin drew a contrast between himself and Obama by saying West Virginia was far more economically sound than the country. The state has an unemployment rate below both the national rate and also has begun gradually cutting both business and consumer taxes, while improving its Wall Street credit rating and emergency reserves, points frequently noted by Tomblin's campaign.
Like Manchin, Tomblin sparred with tougher coal mining regulations from the Obama administration, keeping up a lawsuit the former governor filed against the Environmental Protection Agency's handling of permits.
Tomblin has represented the heart of the southern coalfields as a legislator since 1974, and the mining industry has long been crucial to the state's economic health. West Virginia's Coal Association endorsed Tomblin, and the energy sector was his chief source for campaign cash.
Growing up, Tomblin lived above his family's restaurant. He received a bachelor's in business management from West Virginia University and a master's in business administration from Marshall University.
Tomblin entered politics just as he was finishing college, getting elected to the House of Delegates in 1974 at age 22.
He later bought a local restaurant, owned a real estate company and was involved in a business owned by other family members, Southern Amusement, before they sold it.
Republicans had angled for an outcome similar to last month's upset in a New York City special congressional election, in which Obama's favorability loomed large.
"We don't want Tomblin back in there," said retiree Janet Varney, who along with her husband voted for Maloney. "We just believe he will follow Obama's policies — and we don't agree with Obama's policies."
While West Virginia has had a Democratic governor for the last decade, it has not elected a governor from the southern part of the state since the 1960s. The GOP seized on the region's reputation for political corruption in this race.
Both Maloney and the Republican Governors Association, which has spent at least $3.4 million attacking Tomblin since late August, used ads to make an issue of a greyhound breeding business run by his mother. They claimed Tomblin wrongly diverted money to a state fund that benefits greyhound breeders.
Tomblin said the breeder with the fastest dogs, not state officials, determines who reaps the proceeds.
Richard Farley, of Morgantown, is a registered Republican. He said he was torn until the last minute.
"It was a rough one because I had a choice between Maloney, who stands for nothing, and Tomblin, who — well, I can't support anyone who's ever been involved in gambling," he said.
"Unfortunately, I had to go with Maloney," Farley said.
The Obama-themed ads turned him off, though.
"I'm not sure what the president has to do with the gubernatorial race in West Virginia. That's kind of a non-issue," he said.
Maloney focused on the state's high poverty ranking and touted his experience as an employer. He vowed to take West Virginia in a new direction by aggressively targeting its tax structure, regulatory policies and court system. He also campaigned on his contribution to the rescue plan that freed the 33 trapped Chilean miners last year, saying he provided drilling expertise.
Tomblin and America Works USA, bankrolled by the Democratic Governors Association, targeted Maloney over whether his businesses paid their taxes on time. America Works devoted at least $2.4 million to negative ads.
Tomblin also touted endorsements from groups ranging from the National Rifle Association and the state Chamber of Commerce to the United Mine Workers union and West Virginia AFL-CIO.
Tomblin must resume campaigning almost immediately to keep the seat: It's up again in 2012 for a full four-year term.
Associated Press writers Vicki Smith in Morgantown and Pam Ramsey and John Raby in Charleston contributed to this report.