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Statehouse Beat: Quiet election in West Virginia

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Having read an account in The Washington Post about how TV stations in battleground states are making programming changes to accommodate the massive onslaught of political ads -- including one station airing movies in place of regular network programming in order to free up more local ad time -- it occurred to me that West Virginia is enjoying a relatively slow campaign cycle.

Bill Phillips, political consultant out of Elkins and the state's last Republican gubernatorial chief of staff (under Cecil Underwood), made a similar point in a column posted at his Phillips Billboard blog titled, "Fatigue."

Posted the day early voting began, it begins: "Voters start to the polls today. They have faced six elections starting in 2010. Voters are suffering election fatigue, the candidates are running tired campaigns and the money providers are drained."

Phillips notes that the governor's race usually sets the pace for election campaigns, but this years' Tomblin-Maloney rematch has been low-key, with Tomblin spending more time governing and "dealing with problems not of his doing" than campaigning, while Maloney, in Phillips' words, has been "under the radar."

Phillips notes that only one statewide poll has been conducted for the election, and that was back in August, pointing out, "But you can bet if candidate Maloney had an internal poll showing him at the edge of victory it would have been leaked -- or he would be writing another big check."

Though Friday, Maloney had written four checks totaling $1 million, including $750,000 in October -- nothing like the $2.45 million he self-financed in 2011.

Phillips rightfully points out that Tomblin's concern at this point has to be voter turnout in southern counties, where he had a more than 2-to-1 edge over Maloney in the 2011 special election.

With no enthusiasm among southern Democrats for Obama, and with local races decided back in May, Tomblin has to make sure voter apathy doesn't translate into low turnout.

Phillips speaks from experience, since that scenario played out in 1996, when low turnout in the southern counties was the key factor that allowed Underwood to beat Democrat Charlotte Pritt.

Phillips concludes the column that Republican candidates have to hope Romney has big coattails in West Virginia.

"If not, despite Republicans putting up their best slate of Board of Public Works candidates in years, success may not be at their doorstep," he states.

In talking with Phillips, I suggested his column read like an early concession speech for the Republican slate. He was emphatic it was not, but said it is intended as a call to action for Republicans to get out the vote, an effort he said benefits from having Wendy McCuskey as the party's "Victory" director.

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The lack of publicly released campaign polling this election is perhaps understandable, given the lack of resources by media in the state.

What has been surprising is the complete abandonment of the state by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, N.C.

(PPP polls get criticized for skewing left, and because they are entirely automated phone polls, with no live operators.)

However, their polling in West Virginia the past couple of election cycles has been quite accurate, and until this year, quite frequent.

In 2011, PPP conducted a total of 16 statewide polls, including seven on the special election for governor.

Now, it's been more than a year since PPP did a state poll.

Numerous calls to PPP headquarters went unreturned, but since PPP typically polls presidential, U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races, the assumption is that PPP does not consider any of those races competitive enough in West Virginia this year to justify polling.

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Considering he's facing $2 million of attack ads from out-of-state special interests, it's a bit of nitpicking to complain about Attorney General Darrell McGraw's campaign sending out a flier in the form of an official-looking letter from the attorney general's office, complete with a business-size envelope with a cellophane address window.

On one hand, it's pretty shrewd. A lot of political consultants hate direct mail fliers, primarily because many voters throw them out without reading them -- particularly on days when multiple fliers arrive in the mailbox.

I imagine 99 percent of the recipients of the McGraw letter opened it, wondering -- as I did -- what the heck they had done to get in trouble with the attorney general's office.

On the other hand, Patrick Morrisey campaign manager Scott Will made a good point when he said, "Sadly, Darrell McGraw is guilty of the exact type of behavior he has sworn an oath to prosecute: deceptive advertising."

Indeed, in 1996, McGraw sued a Texas outfit called Sweepstakes Clearinghouse for mailing a promotional circular in envelopes designed to resemble those used to mail W-2 forms, right down to a warning that interfering with the delivery of the letter is a felony.

(The envelope for the McGraw mailer features a small but readable disclaimer that it contains campaign material.)

Sweepstakes Clearinghouse, by the way, ultimately agreed to a settlement that included $38,000 in refunds to state residents.

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Finally, quote of the week: "I can't tell you who I'm voting for. It's a secret ballot." -- President Barack Obama, prior to going to Chicago to early vote. Perhaps Sen. Manchin or Gov. Tomblin might want to adopt that line the next time they're pestered about how they're voting for president ...

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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