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.”