CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's leading business and coal industry groups endorsed Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Thursday in a race marked by dueling views of the long-struggling state's economy and whether it has made progress in recent years.
The state's Chamber of Commerce and Coal Association each cited the Democrat's track record in public office. The chamber counted Tomblin among several endorsed candidates who "have a history of working hard to move West Virginia forward." Coal Association President Bill Raney, meanwhile, called him "a very strong proponent as well as student of the coal industry.
"Earl Ray has always been there in leadership positions," Raney said. "He has a deep understanding of the fiscal situation."
However, Tomblin's tenure has prompted his Republican opponent, Bill Maloney, to cast him as a failed career politician. Tomblin rose from a rank-and-file legislator first elected in the 1970s to West Virginia's longest-serving state Senate president. He narrowly defeated Maloney in a special election last year to complete an unexpired term. Their November rematch is for a full four-year term.
West Virginia has long ranked below all or most other states in such areas as per-capita income and people living in poverty. Tomblin, 60, and other public officials see recent gains reflected by ongoing tax cuts, robust emergency reserves and an unemployment rate that has stayed below the national figure.
Seth Wimer, Maloney's campaign manager, cited such factors as a looming budget deficit threat and "5 straight months of skyrocketing unemployment" to argue that West Virginia remains headed in the wrong direction.
Additionally, Wimer discounted the sources of Thursday's endorsements.
"It's no surprise that the Charleston lobbyists and political insiders, whose livelihoods depend on 'staying the course,' are circling the wagons around Earl Ray," Wimer said.
After back-to-back general revenue surpluses, officials project a hole of $200 million to $300 million in the budget the Legislature must craft next year. That has spurred Tomblin to order an array of state agencies to trim their spending by 7.5 percent.
Unemployment, meanwhile, stood at 7.4 percent in July, the latest month for figures adjusted by seasonal hiring trends, the same level as January. It had steadily dipped to 6.7 percent in March before climbing again. The national rate was nearly 1 percent higher in July, and 27 other states reported higher rates, as well.
West Virginia is the nation's second-leading provider of coal and Raney estimated that his group's members account for 97 percent of the state's production. The industry has seen that output slow in recent months, attributed to a mild winter and power plants switching to natural gas, among other factors. That has led to layoffs as well as weakening state revenues.
Raney said that emerging climate helps explain why the association chose Tomblin.
"With the difficult times that are unfolding, they felt like there was a good bit of confidence in Earl Ray, because he's been there before during tough times," Raney said of his group's political action committee members. "He was the right guy for leading the state."
While citing signs that West Virginia's economy is becoming more diverse, Roberts said Tomblin's experience particularly on energy issues became a deciding factor for the chamber's PAC, as well.
"There is a strong view that Tomblin has been a very steady hand on the rudder," Roberts said Thursday. "He really has known how to guide the state through some fiscal tough times."
Raney and Roberts also each said their endorsements are not meant as an attack on Maloney, a drilling consultant and business owner. Both groups announced support for several Republicans on Thursday, including U.S. Reps. David McKinley and Shelley Moore Capito and attorney general candidate Patrick Morrisey.