For much of the early part of the millennium, Democratic pundits have wondered, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Many of them have asked the same thing about West Virginia. The Mountaineer State swung hard to FDR in 1932, and remained with the Democrats through good times and bad for seven decades. But in recent years, it’s been really tough sledding for the blue team in West Virginia. In part because Republicans have smeared Democrats as being hostile to coal, West Virginia has gone Republican in every presidential election since 2000.
On the surface, it looked like the Democrats bottomed out in West Virginia when Donald Trump won the state by a punishing 68-26 margin over Hillary Clinton. To put this in perspective, this was the biggest margin of victory for any candidate, regardless of party, since West Virginia broke away from Virginia in 1863.
Nowhere was West Virginia’s swing from blue to red more dramatic than in the 3rd District, the state’s southernmost district. It stretches from Huntington through the heart of coal country to Bluefield and Beckley. Al Gore won it by a 51-44 margin in 2000 even as George W. Bush became only the third Republican to win the state since 1933. The 3rd flipped to Bush by a 53-46 margin over John Kerry in 2004.
Then, in 2008, whump–John McCain romped to a 56-42 victory over Barack Obama. Mitt Romney ballooned the margin to 65-33 over Obama in 2012. In 2016, Trump cleaned Hillary’s clock in this district, 72-23–his fifth-best district in the Eastern Time Zone.
The district’s two-term Republican incumbent, Evan Jenkins, gave up the seat to run in the Republican primary for Joe Manchin’s Senate seat, but lost to state attorney general Patrick Morrisey. But the race to succeed Jenkins has taken a turn that is nothing short of staggering. The Democratic candidate, state senator Richard Ojeda, has almost singlehandedly turned this into one of the hottest races in the country. Just over three months from election day, he may be poised to return this seat to the Democratic fold.
Ojeda–pronounced Oh-jeh-da–is a former Army paratrooper and teacher who represents a slice of the congressional district’s southern portion in the state senate. He rose to prominence this past winter during the statewide teachers’ strike, when he called for higher taxes on energy companies to help give teachers raises. Since then, he has become nothing short of a force of nature, attracting massive crowds to his rallies.
In the process, he has upended conventional wisdom that this race should be more or less a layup for his Republican opponent, state delegate Carol Miller. A poll taken in June by Monmouth University showed Ojeda leading Miller by from two points in a full sample, six points with a likely voter screen, and nine points in a “blue tsunami” scenario.
The pundits have noticed. After that Monmouth poll, David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report pegged this race as “Lean Republican.”
So have The Young Turks. Watch Ojeda speak with them here in June.
If there was any doubt that Ojeda is the real deal, it was erased on Tuesday morning when he detonated a bombshell on Twitter.
That came courtesy of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which describes Ojeda as “a folk hero” in this district.
To put this in perspective, 38-year Democratic incumbent Nick Rahall was capsized by Jenkins in the 2014 Democratic wave–and it wasn’t even close, 55-44. Jenkins romped to a second term in 2016. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Ojeda would be struggling to stay in Miller’s rearview mirror. Consider that notion blown away.
Ojeda is running as a no-questions-asked populist, a throwback to how Democrats ran in coal country for years. He favors a public option for Medicare, making college more affordable, repealing Citizens United, and keeping a tighter rein on super PACs. While he is pro-coal, he has slammed the state’s coal companies for not investing more in the state. He only accepts donations from individual donors and unions.
He voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary before voting for Trump in the general election. However, he now openly regrets crossing over to Trump, accusing him of promising to do something for coal country on the trail, then “taking care of the daggone people he’s supposed to be getting rid of” once elected. Apparently a lot of other people in this district are of the same mind.
Remember, folks, this is a district Trump won by almost 50 points. Districts this red should not even be on the board this close to Election Day. The mere fact that it is can only be described as a flashing red light for the GOP. Imagine a Republican being not only within the margin of error, but leading, in a district Hillary won by 30 or more at this stage. If Ojeda can keep this up and win, then in all likelihood the House has gone Democratic.
But someone must have forgotten to tell Miller that she’s going to have to do some heavy lifting in this race. Her Website is bare bones–what you would expect to see from a sacrificial-lamb candidate. Apparently she must think that all she has to do is morph Ojeda into a Nancy Pelosi clone–SOP in districts this red–and she can cruise to Washington. Well, Carol, you’re in for a rude awakening. And if your Washington buddies have to come to your rescue, that’s money they can’t spend in swingier districts elsewhere.
That being said, Ojeda’s going to need a lot of help to keep up this momentum. Sooner or later, the GOP is going to figure out that’s it’s in big, big trouble here–and they’ll throw everything that isn’t nailed down at Ojeda. It cannot be repeated enough–if Ojeda can pull this off, in all likelihood the Democrats have retaken the House. Click here to donate.
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