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Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin held off Republican challenger Bill Maloney in Tuesday’s special election for Governor of West Virginia, eking out a narrow 50 percent to 47 percent victory. Tomblin — who has been acting as governor since Joe Manchin’s election to the U.S. Senate — had to fend off constant attacks from Maloney, including repeated charges that he was too close to President Obama, who is deeply unpopular in the Mountain State.

Tomblin started as a huge favorite, but the race tightened as the self-funded Maloney began buying ads and raising his profile across the state. Ultimately, Tomblin’s record of relatively low unemployment, surplus revenues, and gradual tax cuts was enough to achieve a surprising close win.

Maloney and the Republican Party began aggressively buying ads attempting to tie Tomblin to the president in August, including one notable spot that featured images of Tomblin and Obama floating together on the screen and asked, “What’s Gov. Tomblin doing about Obamacare? Absolutely nothing.”

Many pundits viewed the special election as a crucial referendum on the White House; as MSNBC’s First Read put it:

[A Republican victory] would provide further evidence that Obama is toxic in red states — a stark reversal from 2008, by the way — and you’ll see Democrats start running for the hills, which could produce a self-fulfilling outcome 13 months from now. … It will be hard for Democrats to spin away losing this race. Keep in mind: The Democrat in this race has the support of labor AND the Chamber of Commerce. There’s only ONE explanation for a loss. No one needs a win worse in West Virginia tonight than Team Obama.

While a Tomblin loss could have been a political disaster for President Obama, Tomblin’s victory can hardly be seen as a ringing endorsement of the White House. The Eastern Panhandle region of the state, where the majority of Maloney’s Obama-related ads aired, voted solidly Republican; this suggests that the ads were at least somewhat effective.

Furthermore, Tomblin went out of his way to distance himself from the president, even refusing to say whether or not he’d vote for Obama in 2012. Tomblin also received endorsements from conservative groups such as NRA and the Chamber of Commerce, which likely helped him differentiate himself from the president to voters.

Keeping the White House at arm’s length is critical for any Democrat who hopes to be elected in West Virginia. Tomblin learned this lesson from his close ally Manchin, who wrote the playbook on how to avoid association with President Obama during his 2010 campaign:

While Tomblin didn’t disavow the president’s policies as theatrically as Manchin did, he followed essentially the same strategy. His narrow victory in the special election shows that, although Obama avoided a political catastrophe Tuesday, he still has a steep uphill battle to win support from conservative Democrats such as those in West Virginia.

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