For most of his career, politics has been a walk in the park for West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The first time in more than a third of a century that he had to actually worry about an election was last year, when voters chose him as governor.
During that special election, Tomblin, a Democrat, prevailed over Republican Bill Maloney, but only by a narrow margin. Tomblin received 149,202 votes to Maloney's 141,656, with 10,226 other ballots scattered among other candidates. As I pointed out not long after that election, Tomblin received fewer than half the votes cast (49.55 percent).
Had it not been for his long-time comfort zone, Tomblin would have lost.
Tomblin served as a state senator from the district including Logan, Lincoln and Boone counties, and part of Wayne County, for many years. It was his power base there that elevated him to the presidency of the state Senate, setting him up to become governor when Joe Manchin left to become a U.S. senator.
Last year in the special election, Logan (Tomblin's home), Lincoln and Boone counties gave him 12,395 votes to Maloney's 2,717. The combined margin over Maloney was 9,678 votes; Tomblin won the state by just 7,546 votes.
Tomblin went straight into politics after graduating from West Virginia University. In 1974 he was one of four Democrats elected to the House of Delegates from Logan County. There were no Republican opponents. Again in 1976, Tomblin and three other Democrats won with no GOP opposition. In 1978, a couple of Republicans dared to mount a challenge; Tomblin and his fellow Democrats beat them by margins of approximately three-to-one.
Tomblin's dominance continued when he moved to the state Senate in 1980. He thrashed a Republican candidate, 28,065 to 10,895, then repeated the performance against another GOP sacrificial lamb in 1984.
That scared Republicans away for the next two elections, which Tomblin won uncontested in 1988 and 1992.
In 1996, a GOP stalwart named Stephen Ray Smith made the mistake of taking on Tomblin. He lost by a vote tally of 25,396 to 5,783. In 2000, Tomblin was alone again on the ballot.
His most serious challenge to that point came in 2004, when Republican Billy Marcum, a fellow Logan Countian, ran against Tomblin. He was beaten by a three-to-one count, which was the story again in 2008.
But things are different now that Tomblin is running statewide. Again, he barely won last year.
And the situation this time around is much different. One key to the race is that during the 2011 special election, President Barack Obama was not on the ballot. He will be there this fall, and that will hurt Tomblin.
Since the special election, hundreds of miners in West Virginia's southern coalfields - and thousands elsewhere - have lost their jobs because of Obama's war on coal. That will mean far fewer of the straight-ticket Democrat ballots Tomblin and others of his party have counted on for generations. Some of those southern voters, moving over on the ballot to vote for Republican Mitt Romney over Obama, may stay there long enough to check Maloney's name for governor.
Sen. Manchin's name on the Democrat side will help Tomblin with such voters, of course.
Other things have changed. For example, Tomblin has ordered state agencies to prepare for 7.5 percent spending cuts. People at state colleges and universities who may have voted for the governor could, in light of that action, reevaluate their positions.
"Obamacare" also will be a factor. Most West Virginians don't like nationalized health care, and they may go along with Maloney's contention Tomblin has not fought the president hard enough over it.
In a nutshell, what's different for Tomblin this time is that he can't even be entirely relaxed about his comfort zone in Logan, Lincoln and Boone counties. To win, he has to win big in the southern coalfields, where Obama is turning into Maloney's best friend, in a strange sort of way.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org