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Richard Ojeda’s West Virginia primary win gives Democrats their best chance to turn coal country blue

The teachers strike in West Virginia pushed Ojeda into the national spotlight.

Voters went to the polls at the Dallas Community Center on May 8, 2018 in Dallas, West Virginia.
Voters went to the polls at the Dallas Community Center on May 8, 2018, in Dallas, West Virginia.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Richard Ojeda is projected to win the Democratic nomination in the race for West Virginia’s Third Congressional District, giving Democrats their best chance to flip a congressional seat in November in the state, which Donald Trump won in 2016 by 40 points.

The Third District is home to West Virginia’s coal country, and three in four voters there cast a ballot for Trump — more than any other part of the state. Yet Ojeda’s brand of populism resonates with working-class voters in the region, and his outspoken defense of West Virginia’s teachers earlier this year launched him into the national spotlight.

Ojeda will face Republican nominee Carol Miller in November. Miller, who is a bison farmer and current member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, won 23.8 percent of the GOP’s primary votes, beating six other Republicans.

Both are vying for the seat left open by Rep. Evan Jenkins, who is making a bid for US Senate. The brash, tattooed Army veteran, who is currently a state senator, reflects all the contradictions of West Virginia politics: He is pro-gun rights and pro-labor; he’s a Democrat who voted for Trump (and now regrets it). The state’s coal miners have aligned themselves with him, but it was his vocal support of West Virginia’s teachers that turned him into a working-class hero.

“We are sitting on a powder keg,” said Ojeda during a Senate speech in January. “If you think teachers across this state are not saying the s-word, you are wrong.”

The “s-word” was “strike” — and that’s exactly what happened. A few weeks later, every school in the state shut down as teachers rallied outside the Capitol, angry about a meager 1 percent raise and rising health insurance premiums.

Ojeda had blasted lawmakers about the 1 percent raise and introduced several other bills with the teachers in mind. One gave teachers a tax break for buying classroom supplies; another aimed to stabilize health care premiums for public employees; a third gave public employees a $5,000 raise over three years. The bills never passed, but Ojeda did advocate for teachers during the strike, giving speeches outside the Capitol and on the Senate floor, and voted for the final bill that ended the strike. During the nine-day protest, teachers sported T-shirts and carried posters with Ojeda’s photo and took selfies with him.

In the end, teachers got the 5 percent pay raise for all public employees they were demanding, and the strike and its aftermath turned Ojeda into a hero to educators.

Voters in southern West Virginia picked Ojeda over the three other Democrats on the ballot: Shirley Love, a state House delegate and former broadcast journalist; Janice Hagerman, a nurse from a coal mining family; and Paul Davis, the head of the state’s public transit system.

Ojeda had raised the most money and snagged the endorsement of the state’s powerful coal miners union and the state’s teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers of West Virginia. His primary victory makes him one of the first national candidates to benefit from the teacher unrest that has hit several states.

Ojeda is asking Trump voters to send a Democrat to Congress

West Virginia’s Third Congressional District has been described as the reddest part of the state. About 73 percent of voters here cast a ballot for Trump, more than the state’s other two House districts. Ojeda cast a ballot for Trump too, but he now regrets it.

“It’s been a friggin’ circus for a solid year,” Ojeda told Politico magazine. “All he’s done ... is shown that he’s taking care of the daggone people he’s supposed to be getting rid of.”

Ojeda has been careful not to bash Trump too much. His rural district includes West Virginia’s coal mines and timber farms, and it’s the poorest district in the state — more than 60 percent of residents live in poverty. Yet voters here have been casting their ballots for Republican presidents since George W. Bush first ran for the White House.

The idea that this district could flip blue is still considered a stretch. The Cook Political Report doesn’t think it’s a competitive race, labeling the outcome as Likely Republican. It’s not even on the radar of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which forecasts the outcomes of competitive races.

But it’s worth noting that Democrats still outnumber Republicans in every county in the district. In fact, the House seat Ojeda is running for has historically been held by Democrats; it wasn’t until 2015 that Jenkins flipped it Republican for the first time in 40 years.

Kari Wenck, a fourth-grade  teacher from Huntington, W.Va., holds a sign near the entrance of the state Senate chambers in Charleston, on Feburary 22, 2018.
Kari Wenck, a fourth-grade teacher from Huntington, West Virginia, holds a sign near the entrance of the state Senate chambers in Charleston on February 22, 2018.
John Raby/AP

Ojeda has campaigned as a populist Democrat with a focus on labor issues. “Right-to-work needs to go,” Ojeda said in a Facebook Live video, referring to the state law that lets workers opt-out of their local labor union. “If we take back the state of West Virginia, we will be the first state to overturn right-to-work.”

But he has also taken positions that might not be as popular in red America. For instance, he was instrumental in passing the state’s medical marijuana law and has voted down an anti-abortion bill.

Ojeda raised the most money out of all the Democrats: about $208,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s still about half as much as Republican contender Carol Miller, who has raised $463,000. Miller opposed the teachers’ strike, which could hurt her in November.

Ojeda’s support for the strike could be the decisive factor in flipping the seat blue, Robert Rupp, a West Virginia Wesleyan political history professor, told the Associated Press.

“Ojeda not only made his opinion known, he made his presence known,” Rupp said. “Rather than just saying ‘I’m for the teachers,’ (he’s) there fighting for them.”

A big part of Ojeda’s fight has been calling on his colleagues to raise taxes, something few lawmakers in this conservative state have been willing to do.

The 47-year-old Ojeda hasn’t been shy about wanting to raise taxes on corporations. He blasted former legislators for “giving away” the state to coal companies without getting anything in return for residents. He added that legislators needed to raise taxes on natural gas companies putting pipelines throughout West Virginia.

“There will be billions pulled from our state,” he said during a Senate speech in January. “If we allow that to go, and do not think of the citizens of West Virginia, then shame on all of us.”

The state has been cutting corporate and business taxes for more than a decade. The idea was to attract investment in the state, but it was never enough investment to offset the lost tax revenue. Then came the recession. But instead of raising taxes, lawmakers just slashed spending, hitting schools the hardest.

As a result, public schools have been losing millions of dollars each year in state money, which is the main source of funding for local schools, followed by local property taxes. The amount of money the state of West Virginia now spends on each student is 11.4 percent lower than it was before the economy tanked in 2008.

“We’re not listening to our teachers,” Ojeda told fellow lawmakers during a Senate floor session, according to WVNews.

But the teachers are paying attention to them. On Monday, members of the West Virginia Public Employee’s Facebook Group, which organized the nine-day strike, wanted to know which candidates voted against the pay raises.

“I’m looking over my ballot right now and crossing off names,” one teacher in the group commented on Monday. “Just because these people are in my party doesn’t mean they are getting my vote. ... If I didn’t get theirs ... they aren’t getting mine.”