CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin edged a Republican newcomer in West Virginia's special election for governor, suggesting the state's recent economic gains mattered more to voters here than an unpopular sitting president of the same party — barely. But the barrage of attack ads targeting Tomblin, the acting governor, likely tightened his race with businessman Bill Maloney in the final weeks.
Maloney and his GOP backers sought to make it a Republican upset by invoking the unpopular President Barack Obama. But the Mountain State's improving financial health helped Tomblin while the negativity in the GOP attack ads turned off some voters. Tomblin also ran attack ads during the campaign.
Maloney and the Republican Governors Association hammered the acting governor with TV ads depicting him alongside Obama and faulting him for failing to join an unfolding multistate legal challenge of the president's signature initiative, the federal health care overhaul. Though Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-to-1, West Virginia stayed red in 2008 and Obama suffers one of his lowest approval ratings in the state, according to the most recent Gallup survey.
Still, Tomblin prevailed. He took nearly 50 percent of the vote to 47 percent for Maloney after reminding West Virginians of the progress made under Democratic leadership. The state has avoided program cuts and teacher layoffs while enjoying both surplus revenues and gradual tax cuts. Its 8.1 percent unemployment rate is below that of more than half the states.
"There are things that we have pushed on the entire campaign," Tomblin told The Associated Press, in his first remarks upon winning. "Tonight shows that the people of West Virginia believe in what we've been doing."
Tomblin's final round of advertising also sought to rebut the GOP attacks by prominently featuring U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. Considered far more popular in West Virginia than the president, Manchin was serving his second term as governor when he won the seat held by the late Robert C. Byrd. After more than a half-century in Congress, Byrd's 2010 death at age 93 touched off a political chain reaction in West Virginia that led to Tuesday's special election.
In last year's special Senate election. Manchin also successfully repelled the Obama-themed attacks by invoking state issues: Among other gains, West Virginia has among the healthiest emergency reserves among recession-strapped states and has seen its Wall Street credit ratings improve.
"We tried to stay on message as much as possible," Tomblin told AP. "We do have a stable budget and a stable economy in West Virginia. That's what people are looking for."
State election officials estimated turnout at 25 percent, with more than 303,718 votes cast.
An unknown before entering the race, Maloney had stumped on his record as a successful businessman and employer. The 53-year-old Morgantown drilling engineer and millionaire also played a role in developing the rescue plan that freed the 33 trapped Chilean miners last year.
But his campaign, and GOP-funded ads, began invoking Obama in late August. With the president seeking a second term in 2012, Republicans had angled for an outcome similar to last month's upset in a New York City special congressional election. Obama's favorability loomed large in that contest.
One anti-Tomblin ad featured images of the president floating on the screen with the fellow Democrat. It asked: "What's Gov. Tomblin doing about Obamacare? Absolutely nothing."
Maloney also attacked Tomblin for voting as a legislator on measures they alleged benefited his mother's greyhound breeding business. He seized on West Virginia's still-dismal rankings in such key areas as income and educational attainment, questioning Tomblin's effectiveness despite 36 years in state government.
"We had a good message and good team, and the people of West Virginia want better than what we've been for the past 80 years," Maloney told AP after conceding the race. "I think we woke them up a little bit, if we did nothing else. At least we did something here."
Tomblin has been a lawmaker since 1974. As the state Senate president, he began acting as governor when Manchin resigned last year. Resolving a subsequent legal challenge, the state Supreme Court ordered that an elected governor take office within one year of his Nov. 15 departure.
Tomblin must run again in 2012, when the office is up for a full four-year term.
Tomblin was considered favored when he and Maloney each emerged from crowded fields in the May primaries. The negative GOP ads may have helped narrow the race, but they also turned voters such as 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.
Associated Press writers John Raby and Dena Potter in Charleston and Vicki Smith in Morgantown contributed to this article.