CHARLESTON- The TV ads aired so far in the West Virginia's governor's race have one thing in common: President Barack Obama.
The Republican Governors Association continues the trend with its new spot attacking the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The RGA ad that debuted last week compares the federal health care overhaul with legislation championed by Tomblin that tackles public retiree costs.
The GOP candidate, Bill Maloney, doesn't even mention Tomblin in either of his first two ads. One instead asks voters to "send a message to Obama." The other opens declaring, "Barack Obama promised our children change, but the change he promised has darkened," and has Maloney pledging to "repeal Obamacare" if elected.
But Tomblin is taking on his fellow Democrat as well. His pair of ads either decries federal spending or boast of fighting the Obama administration in court over coal.
"I won't let anyone push us around," Tomblin intones in that ad.
With Obama's lack of popularity in West Virginia well-documented, Tomblin's effort to separate his campaign from the president makes sense, said pollster Rex Repass. His firm's recent survey for the Charleston Daily Mail found former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney well ahead of Obama in the state. But that poll also found Tomblin leading Maloney.
"It does not appear that there is a coattail effect with Romney in the state," Repass said Friday. "There is not an alignment with Gov. Tomblin and the Obama administration, at least at this point in time."
The West Virginia Coal Association appears to agree. It endorsed Tomblin over Maloney last week, with President Bill Raney citing Tomblin's career-long support of the industry. Raney said Tomblin, a former veteran lawmaker and state Senate president, has also helped coal through tough times such as the recent market downturn.
Raney also specifically rejected repeated attempts by Republicans, including Maloney, to link Tomblin to Obama on coal issues. The industry and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency remain sharply at odds over attempts to pursue water protection standards and the handling of mining-related permits. One of Tomblin's ads refers to West Virginia's lawsuit that led a federal judge to conclude in July that EPA overstepped its powers.
"There's no common ground between the Tomblin administration and the Obama administration as it regards coal," Raney said.
The RGA ad seeks to Obama-ize another West Virginia issue: the health benefits promised public employees once they retire. Part of Tomblin's legislative agenda this year, the relevant new law embraces a plan to close a funding gap between on-hand assets and the expected cost of these non-pension benefits.
As part of that plan, the legislation outlined a dozen ways that the Public Employees Insurance Agency, which oversees the health benefits, can cut costs. Those include increasing the percentage of prescriptions filled with the generic versions of drugs, coordinating care of enrollees with multiple chronic illnesses, and reducing "excessive use of emergency room visits, imaging services and other drivers of the agency's medical rate of inflation."
"Tomblin's plan puts bureaucrats in charge of seniors' health care, lets them ration health care," the RGA ad says. "Sound familiar?"
Critics of the health care law have long alleged that it includes rationing. Besides the now-debunked assertion that "death panels" lurk in its recesses, these foes have invoked the Independent Payment Advisory Board. The overhaul allows this yet-to-be-created panel to force Medicare cuts if costs rise beyond certain levels and Congress fails to act. But the law explicitly prohibits IPAB from rationing care, shifting costs to retirees, restricting benefits or raising the Medicare eligibility age.
Jason Haught, chief financial officer of the Public Employees Insurance Agency, does not consider the cost-saving provision of the retiree benefits law to be rationing.
"It didn't really specify anything regarding rationing or how the health care plan is run," Haught said Friday. He added, "With or without this legislation, our agency is always watching for the over-utilization of the ER. It's an efficient use of the limited resources that the plan has."