In a campaign ad released in April, Richard Ojeda, a Democrat running for an open seat in West Virginia’s Third Congressional District, appears washing his face over the bathroom sink, shirtless, with a tattoo that reads “Sapper”—military slang for a combat engineer—clearly visible across his back. What you’re expecting next is a paean to patriotism draped in the American flag. And you get it, eventually—but first, there’s a twist: “I never dreamed that I would come home only to find children in my own backyard that have it worse than the kids I saw in Afghanistan,” Ojeda says in the voice-over.
That dissonance—between the ideal of America that inspired his military service and the realities of the downtrodden district where he grew up—is what motivated Ojeda to enter politics. It’s also a major part of what he once found alluring in the “America First” rhetoric of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
If he hadn’t joined the Army, Ojeda says, his options after graduating from Logan High School in 1988 would have been to dig coal or sell dope. By the time he retired 24 years later, there was a lot more dope, and a lot less coal, in the district, whose largest city, Huntington, is often portrayed as the national epicenter of the opioid crisis.
On the wall of Ojeda’s old campaign office hangs a sign that states: Big Pharma Can Go to Hell.
Like close to 80 percent of Logan County’s voters, Ojeda supported Trump in 2016, even as he won a seat to represent the area as a Democrat in the State Senate. He has since become one of those elusive figures whose reported existence lures so many envoys from the DC press corps on safaris in Appalachia: a contrite Trump voter willing to tell it like it is.
Lately, Ojeda has been playing with the politics of regret: signaling remorse over his support for Trump to the Democratic base (and Democratic donors), while being careful not to alienate West Virginians whose own reservations about the president haven’t been raised above a whisper. It’s an awkward dance, largely because of Trump’s enduring popularity with Republicans. Many of the promises that Trump made during the presidential campaign effectively asked voters to suspend their disbelief: to have faith, despite his inherited fortune, his many bankruptcies, and his record of stiffing associates, that he really was the visionary deal-maker he played on TV, someone who would play tough with pharmaceutical companies and fight the erosion of the tax base. Trump has not kept these promises. Other planks in his platform—unleashing the full, repressive might of law enforcement on America’s immigrant communities, or pumping the brakes on federal environmental regulations—have been easier for the president to deliver on. White evangelicals appear to be getting the full measure of their devil’s bargain on Supreme Court nominees, and for some voters, that will be enough. To hear Ojeda tell it, though, West Virginia is a state concerned most of all with “putting food on the table.”
While Trump continues to tout record highs in the stock market, Ojeda says the seams have started to show elsewhere. Before Trump’s inauguration, the Carrier Corporation, which makes appliances, curried favor with the incoming administration by promising to save 1,100 manufacturing jobs in Indiana. A year later, as Trump signed a trillion-dollar tax cut to benefit corporate interests, Carrier’s parent company relocated hundreds of union jobs to Mexico. This past summer, Midwestern soybean farmers suffered from Trump’s simmering tariff war with China, a conflict sure to bring more casualties in the years to come. Is this the real face of “America First”? As Ojeda told The New York Times in July, “[Trump] said, ‘I’m going to take all them jobs from overseas and bring them to America.’ He hasn’t brought them to West Virginia. We still struggle on everything.”
Come November, Ojeda will be attempting to win as a Democrat in a congressional district that Trump carried by nearly 50 points, and it looks like he actually has a shot. Recent polls by Monmouth University and The New York Times/Siena College show him ahead by six points and trailing by eight, respectively, in a race against Republican Carol Miller, the majority whip of West Virginia’s Statehouse. Miller, a bison farmer with a stake in a car-dealership chain, is the daughter of a GOP congressman running on a pro-gun, pro-industry, anti-immigration, and anti-Obamacare platform.
Ojeda used his first term in the State Senate to challenge the most important economic interests in West Virginia. He called for major tax hikes on any natural gas that gets shipped out of the state and said that executives who used financial maneuvers to strip coal miners of their pensions deserved to go to prison. A former high-school ROTC teacher himself, Ojeda warned his fellow state senators this past January that low pay and frustrations with benefits made the state’s teaching workforce “a volcano that’s about to erupt.” When the volcano blew the following month and 20,000 teachers went on strike, Ojeda took to Facebook Live to accuse Republicans in the state government of “destroying West Virginia’s education system.”
But running as a populist maverick may not be enough to overcome his opponent’s fund-raising advantage and partisan bona fides in a district previously represented by Evan Jenkins, a former Democrat who, aware of the seismic shifts in the state’s politics, changed his party registration to run for Congress in 2013. Last month, Miller released an ad that featured a clip of her endorsement by Trump and tied Ojeda to the familiar villains of Fox News: “Nancy Pelosi and San Francisco liberals,” along with the donor class of the “radical left.” If Ojeda is elected, the ad suggested, he’d do little more than give the Democrats one more vote for impeachment.
On Election Day, Ojeda’s fate depends largely on how such attacks resonate with the people of the Third District. Will he feel the sting of running against a Republican endorsed by West Virginia’s beloved president, or will he persuade enough voters that his evolving stance on Trump is one more sign of his independence? “‘Flip-flopping’ is only bad for you as a candidate if people disagree with your new position,” said Texas Tech political scientist Kevin Banda, reflecting on Ojeda’s turnabout. “The question is: How many voters in that congressional district agree with him about Trump?”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, when Ojeda was running for the State Senate, coal was his overriding concern. “Everybody I know relies on coal. When coal is down, everything struggles,” Ojeda told me recently. He credits Trump with a modest rebound in coal production since last year, though the data suggest that it’s due to factors beyond the president’s control. “He has allowed the industry to continue moving,” Ojeda said. “But there are a lot of things that are in trouble. We have an opioid epidemic that is ripping us apart, and we only have 75 beds to address that issue in the Third Congressional District.” On that issue, he added, there’s been no movement at all. “The coal miners are working. But there’s more than just coal miners in West Virginia.”
When we spoke, Ojeda chose his words carefully and made sure to leave the door open to collaborating with Trump, who remains one of the most popular political figures in the state, “if he’s got a good idea…. I’m not out here screaming and yelling, ‘Down with Trump!’”
Nor has he shied from criticizing the records of his fellow Democrats in West Virginia, where the party held an unbroken majority in the State Legislature from 1932 until 2006, and ended its statehouse run as “elitists who looked down on people here.” In refrains like that, Ojeda joins in the critique of his party culled from the culture-war playbook. Yet when it comes to actual culture-war issues, he comes down somewhere in the moderate wing of the Democratic Party—a pro-choice supporter of DACA (the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy) who thinks that marijuana should be removed from the Controlled Substances Act and that stoners should get to keep their guns. By and large, Ojeda has been content to let his opponent campaign on culture. He has been far more outspoken in his calls for the Democratic Party to focus on economic populism: supporting labor unions, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and rooting out the coziness between the political class and large corporations. In this respect, Ojeda seems to want to demonstrate the breadth of the appeal of a Bernie Sanders–style progressivism when it’s uncoupled from the so-called culture wars. If Democrats are going to win in a state where Sanders carried the Democratic primary in all 55 counties, Ojeda thinks it will be around kitchen-table issues.
Choosing a candidate is almost always an exercise in quieting some internal dissonance. In Ojeda, voters in the Third District will have to reckon with more than most: a candidate who purports to be both pro-coal and pro-environment; the grandson of an undocumented Mexican immigrant who defends the sentiment behind the support for Trump’s border wall.
On August 21, Trump kicked off his midterm campaigning for fellow Republicans with a rally in Charleston, West Virginia. The goal of the rally was to boost former state attorney general Patrick Morrisey in his race against Joe Manchin, thought to be one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the US Senate. But officials took the opportunity to aim their arrows at Democrats running across the state. Republican Governor Jim Justice appeared onstage and urged the crowd to help the president by sending Republicans to the House of Representatives. “We cannot, whatever we do, to God above, we cannot put Ojeda on this man,” Justice said, standing beside Trump. Two days later, a man called in to talk about the rally on WVOW, a radio station in the heart of the Third District that bills itself as “the voice of the coal fields.”
He began with a statement of loyalty: “President Trump loves West Virginia—he knows that we’re behind him.” But the caller took issue with the governor. “I know he’s a coal operator…and he’s creating jobs, and for that I’m thankful,” he said of Justice, a billionaire whose holdings include dozens of mining companies active in West Virginia. “But when he slurred Mr. Ojeda, he lost me.”
The caller didn’t identify himself on-air, but it wasn’t hard to get a sense of his politics. “I’m getting tired of being called a Nazi,” he said, lamenting the fact that, as he put it, the national Democratic Party has “been hijacked by communists.” But he’d done his research on Ojeda, the man added. “I’ve watched everything I could about Richie on YouTube, you know, like his speeches and stuff. Richie, I believe, he has got this ideology: He’s gonna make the gas companies put a little more in the kitty for the state of West Virginia, unlike the old coal companies and the timber companies that just grabbed it all up and run off.” Faced with a choice between a populist who communes with “communists” and a member of the 1 percent from his president’s party, the choice, for this man, seemed obvious.
That Ojeda is in the running at all owes something to the unusual political makeup of West Virginia. “From my perspective, West Virginia looks a lot like the American South did from the mid- to late ’60s to the late ’90s,” said Banda, the political scientist from Texas Tech. That is, it’s a state where many voters have held on to their Democratic Party registration and continued to vote for Democrats in local races, while supporting Republican candidates in federal elections in ever-larger numbers. “I sort of wonder whether West Virginia is lagging behind the national environment, and it’s on its way to catching up,” Banda added, noting that Governor Justice is a case in point: a Republican turned Democrat turned Republican again.
“This is not about the message; it is about the messenger,” said Robert Rupp, a professor of history and political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College, speaking to the Los Angeles Times recently. “Even if voters don’t like what Ojeda is saying, they like where he stands.” That’s something Ojeda’s team—which includes a campaign manager who continued to work as a long-haul trucker well into the primary and a communications director whose last job was as a cashier for Dollar General—is counting on. “People here are loyal to the president, but they’re loyal to their own as well,” Madalin Sammons, the communications director, told me.
Trump was back in West Virginia for another rally in late September, and this time he took aim at Ojeda directly, calling him “stone cold crazy” and “a total whacko,” though he didn’t refer to him by name. “I’ve seen this person,” Trump said, throwing up his arms in mock surprise. “You can’t have that person in Congress.”
The sheer force of partisanship could be enough to keep Ojeda from attracting more conservative support. But given that Democrats still outnumber Republicans, 45 to 31 percent, as a share of registered voters in West Virginia, Ojeda remains optimistic: “We just have to give them a reason to get out and vote.”