Looking Forward to 2012 in W.Va.

West Virginians who want to take a major step toward true two-party government now know how to do it. But we find ourselves in much the same position as national Republican Party leaders.

All we need is the right candidate for governor, the same as GOP officials need a good candidate for president against an obviously weakened Barack Obama.

Republican Bill Maloney came within a hair’s-breadth of defeating Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin on Tuesday. Tomblin won, but only by the narrowest margin in nearly half a century. He couldn’t even muster 50 percent of the vote statewide. Third-party candidates including Bob Henry Baber held him to 49.56 percent.

Part of Maloney’s problem is that he’s a businessman, not a politician. He simply didn’t have the instincts to run a winning campaign. On the other hand, being a political outsider may have served him well in a “throw the bums” out atmosphere toward incumbents. The message for state GOP leaders there may be simple: Find a candidate for governor in 2012 who isn’t in politics – but gets better advice than Maloney did.

Because voter registration still runs nearly two-to-one in favor of Democrats in West Virginia, a successful candidate for governor has to convince lots of them to take a chance on him. Clearly, many Democrats – at least in northern counties – did that with Maloney. But some did not because they didn’t know enough about him.

Here’s a challenge for you: Name three specific positions taken firmly by Maloney.

Doesn’t like the fact that greyhound racing dog breeders collect millions of dollars a year. Check.

Wants an intermediate-level appellate court. Check.

Having trouble with No. 3? So did many Democrat voters who, in the end, decided to stick with a guy they at least know something about.

Saying only that you’re a businessman who understands how to create jobs isn’t enough. But rightly or wrongly, that’s the impression many voters had of Maloney.

And Maloney didn’t do well enough to convince voters the state is not as well off as Tomblin insists.

For example, while criticizing Tomblin for beginning to implement “Obamacare,” Maloney said little about what the national health care takeover is going to cost the state – hundreds of millions of dollars more for Medicaid. And he didn’t hammer on the cost to tens of thousands of Mountain State families.

Tomblin’s big claim to fame – earned, in large measure – was state government’s relatively good fiscal position. But Maloney, except in a few situations such as the debate we and West Virginia Northern Community College sponsored here in Wheeling, didn’t do enough to remind voters of challenges yet to be addressed. How many of those who went to the polls Tuesday even know what OPEB stands for, much less that it represents an $8 billion and growing unfunded liability for the state? Incidentally, it stands for other post-employment benefits.

If anything, the outlook for a Republican candidate for governor may be better next year than it was this time around. Remember, President Barack Obama will be on the ballot in November 2012, and that’s going to eliminate a lot of straight-ticket Democrat ballots.

Unemployment isn’t likely to go down much in West Virginia during the coming year, and may go up – in part because of Obama’s war on coal. Tomblin’s most daunting task may be to convince people he and Obama belong to different Democrat parties.

Mountain State Republicans have every reason to be optimistic about 2012 – if they find a charismatic candidate who learns from this year’s mistakes.

But the governor’s office is only one-third of the battle for true two-party government. So the message for the state GOP is clear: Find a winner to head the ticket quickly, then begin recruiting quality folks to run for state Senate and House of Delegates.

That may be more difficult.

Myer can be reached via e-mail at: Myer@theintelligencer.net.