As voters head to the polls in West Virginia until 7:30 ET tonight, here are four things to watch once the returns begin coming in the Mountain State, where acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin faces Republican businessman Bill Maloney:
The Obama effect: If Maloney pulls off an upset, President Obama will get credited with an assist in the victory. The RGA spent significant resources tying Tomblin to Obama, waited until late in the race to make the connection in a television ad. It's no coincidence that the race has tightened in the closing days. Gubernatorial races are usually more focused on local issues, but Republicans poured significant resources into nationalizing the race in the end.
Turnout in the strongholds: Both sides have been vigorously rallying their political bases during the last month. Democrats have made a hard push in areas south of Charleston, where their core supporters reside. The early voting numbers indicate some encouraging signs for Democrats, especially in Logan County, where the 2011 turnout was almost what it was in 2010.
With the Republican Governors Association blanketing the airwaves during the final week in the D.C. market, which extends across to the Eastern Panhandle, turnout in that area, which is more Republican, will be useful to watch. The RGA spent a lot of money advertising in an area where they reached a relatively small number of voters. But the race is close, and a small uptick in turnout in the margins could push Maloney over the top.
McKinley's district: In 2012 Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., faces a rematch with former Democratic state Sen. Mike Oliverio, whom he narrowly defeated in 2010. McKinley won the race in the district last year by a a margin by just 1,440 votes. With Oliverio running again, it's worth keeping an eye on who wins in McKinley's district, and by how much. If Maloney carries McKinley's district, it's a bad sign for Oliverio.
The final margin and acceptance/concession speeches: If the final tally is close, note the tones of the respective speeches. The race is likely to be close and whoever wins will have to be mindful they haven't received a clear mandate and will be facing voters again in 13 months for the regularly-scheduled election.
The losing speech will be more interesting. Even if he does not win, Maloney has impressed many Republicans with his upset of former Secretary of State Betty Ireland in the primary and has shown an ability to close the gap in the closing days of the race against Tomblin. Why is this notable? He hasn't ruled out another run again in 2012 if he loses.
Less likely: a run against Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. If Maloney loses by a small margin but sounds a positive tone in a concession speech, it could enhance his long-term image.
If Tomblin loses, many Democrats will be upset that their start-to-finish frontrunner couldn't seal the deal.