(Reuters) - West Virginians voted on Tuesday in a governor’s race between a Republican businessman who has never held elective office and a long-time Democratic politician who first won a seat in the state House of Delegates while a university student.
Following is a look at the two candidates in the special election, considered an important test of voters’ mood ahead of the 2012 general election, when Democrat Barack Obama will seek a second term as U.S. president.
Republican businessman Maloney, 53, is a drilling engineer who was involved in last year’s rescue of the 33 Chilean miners, something he has featured in his campaign along with his record as a job creator.
From Morgantown, near West Virginia’s northern border and closer to the Pennsylvania city of Pittsburgh than to the state capital Charleston, Maloney co-founded a drilling business in 1984 that had 150 employees when he sold his stake in 2006.
He has never held elected office, but won the Republican primary election in May against Betty Ireland, a former West Virginia secretary of state whose conservativeness was questioned, and six other candidates.
Echoing Republicans on the national scene, Maloney has campaigned as a true conservative and a candidate who would bring business experience to governing a state that ranks 49th out of 50 in per capita income and last in labor force participation.
The Republican Governors Association has poured $3.4 million into the race on his behalf, including heavy spending on advertisements tying his Democratic opponent, Earl Ray Tomblin, to Obama’s healthcare overhaul law.
Maloney had trailed Tomblin by as many as 30 percentage points in polls taken during the spring, but the race has tightened to a statistical dead heat, according to a Public Policy Polling survey this week.
Tomblin, 59, has been West Virginia’s acting governor since November 15, 2010, when Joe Manchin, a fellow conservative Democrat, stepped down as governor to enter the U.S. Senate.
The son of a couple who ran a coal country restaurant, Tomblin was elected a state delegate at 22, after running while a senior at West Virginia University.
He remained a delegate until 1980, when he was elected to the West Virginia Senate, and became its president in January 1995, putting him in line to become governor when the popular Manchin appointed himself to replace the late Robert Byrd in the U.S. Senate.
After courts ordered the special election to fill the remainder of Manchin’s term, Tomblin defeated five Democratic opponents in a May 2011 primary. There will be another election for West Virginia governor in November 2012.
A social conservative who opposes abortion rights, Tomblin campaigned on his experience, West Virginia’s balanced budget, and his ability to work with members of both parties. He has faced questions about whether his votes in the state legislature benefited a family greyhound racing business.
Tomblin has received a wide range of endorsements, including from the National Rifle Association, Chamber of Commerce and United Mine Workers of America union.
Sources: The Almanac of American Politics and the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.
Compiled by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Mohammad Zargham