(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Southern West Virginia is the heart of coal country and cultural conservatism, with gun shops, Assemblies of God churches and American flags dotting the landscape. The region's congressional district is dominated by white, non-college-educated voters. President Donald Trump carried it by 50 percentage points in 2016.
Yet Richard Ojeda, a grandson of an illegal Mexican immigrant, has an even chance this November to take over the area's Republican-held seat in the House of Representatives. The one-term state senator is a tough-talking, decorated military veteran espousing the economic populism that enabled Democrats to dominate the state's politics during the second half of the 20th century.
At Hillbilly Hot Dogs, in a ramshackle old bus in Lesage, Ojeda was clad last week in his usual campaign attire: combat boots and a grunt-style tight Army T-shirt, the tattoo on his arm visible. In an interview over fabulous hot dogs, he displayed an engaging intensity and pulled no punches. Democrats, he said, making an exception for the state’s U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, "lost power because they sucked."
"They were elitists who looked down on people here," Ojeda said.
He liked Senator Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination, but said he voted for Trump in the general election and now has buyer's remorse. He's conservative on most cultural issues but doesn't highlight them. He doesn't argue that coal is a growth industry, but rails about politicians, Democrats included, who would "pull the plug on coal without a well-paying transition."
In a district ravaged by opioid addiction, he's a harsh critic of the drug industry and "Republicans owned by big pharma." He helped pass a state measure legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. Expanding health care is a top issue for him, and he says he's outraged at the notion of letting insurance companies discriminate against people with preexisting medical conditions — as they'd be allowed to do if Republicans are able to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He's a down-the-line supporter of labor unions and workers' rights. "If you don't have a seat at the table, you're on the menu," he said.
The contested House seat was vacated by Republican Evan Jenkins, who unsuccessfully sought his party's nomination to run against Manchin. The Republican candidate is a nondescript legislative leader, Carol Miller, who avoids debates and much public discussion, relying on Trump's coattails. That's not surprising, considering that the district gave Trump his 15th-biggest victory margin in the U.S. There's no remotely competitive race among the top 14.
The coattails used to hang the other way. Starting in 1960, Democrats carried West Virginia in eight of 10 presidential elections. It was common to see pictures of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy in homes. As recently as 2000, Democrats held the state's three House districts, both U.S. Senate seats and most of the state legislature. Then, propelled by coal and culture, Republicans took over, leaving Manchin as the state's only top Democratic officeholder.
For Democrats to come back, they need a candidate who fits in. Ojeda does.
Shortly after his election to the state senate, he was given a political gift: a strike by teachers protesting pay levels that rank 48th in the country, about $15,000 below the national annual average. He became a champion of the teachers, forcing Republicans to reluctantly agree to a 5 percent increase.
The teacher rebellion has Republicans reeling in West Virginia as well as in other deep-red states like Oklahoma. At Hillbilly Hot Dogs, customers thanked Ojeda for supporting teachers. At a meet-and-greet in nearby Ashton, Brianne Solomon, a Democratic candidate for the state legislature, said, "This is what's bringing Democrats back."
At the same meet-and-greet, Ojeda found himself confronted by Carol Whittington, a Trump supporter who challenged him to support a Mexican border wall. He confronted her right back, saying he favored border security, too, but that attention should be focused on doing something for struggling West Virginians.
Whittington wasn't persuaded but offered Ojeda a bit of praise. "At least he's not in the establishment bubble," she said.
Republicans are painting Ojeda as a supporter of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi who is weak on gun rights. Both accusations are false. And it's a boilerplate attack line that's unlikely to stick; it's hard to paint a bronze-star veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as an anti-gun zealot or a San Francisco liberal.
Still, it's Trump country and Democrats worry that a presidential visit might matter. But they haven't felt this good about West Virginia in awhile. At a Huntington rally for Manchin, Ojeda and others, signs proclaimed, "Don't look back," and "Come home." Ojeda blasted the drug industry, Republicans and the billionaire governor, Jim Justice, proclaiming, "Let's take care of our own."
"If that doesn't light your fire," said Dan O'Hanlon, a participant who’s a retired circuit court judge, "your wood is bad."
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Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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