KENOVA, W.Va. — The woman in the Grateful Dead T-shirt approached the man in combat boots with the military haircut.
“Are you … ?” she asked hesitantly.
“Ojeda,” he confirmed.
“Thank you!” the woman gushed. “I’m a teacher.”
Richard Ojeda, who became the political face of a statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia, posed for a selfie with the woman, Jennifer Renne, who teaches middle-school math.
An outspoken populist, Ojeda is running for Congress on a wave of labor activism thanks to voters like Renne, and he is doing surprisingly well as a Democrat in a district that President Donald Trump won by nearly 50 points. Some Democrats see in him a model for how they can win in Middle American places where their party used to prevail, but has been decimated in the Trump era.
“He’s reawakening sleeping giants — the teachers’ union and other labor groups, the real base of the Democratic Party that has been slumbering during these strongly pro-Trump years,” said Nick Rahall, a former Democratic House member from West Virginia who lost his seat to a Republican in 2014.
Ojeda’s encounter with Renne, 44, took place in the smoky, windowless bar of an American Legion post — hardly a bastion of progressivism, but a natural place to find Ojeda, a former Army paratrooper.
“You can only kick a dog so long before he rips you apart,” he told her. When they parted, he offered his usual signoff: “Airborne.”
Around the country, Democrats seeking a path to a House majority in the midterm elections are focused almost exclusively on flipping seats in suburban districts, which are rich with college educated, racially diverse voters.
West Virginia’s 3rd District, a portion of which Ojeda, 47, represents in the state Senate, is none of those things. A U-shaped swath in the southernmost and poorest part of the state, the district is 94 percent white. Fewer than 1 in 4 adults has a college degree. About one-third of families with children in the district live in poverty, according to census statistics.
Still, a recent Monmouth poll found that Ojeda had a nominal lead over his Republican opponent, Carol Miller, a member of the state House of Delegates.
“What I like about Ojeda is he plays offense,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California for the Democratic leadership in the House after the defeat of Hillary Clinton, when he argued that the party must appeal again to white working-class voters. Ryan plans to campaign with Ojeda. “A lot of us are really sick of being on defense,” he said.
Whether Ojeda is a template for Democrats in other states or a charismatic figure whose appeal is unique to West Virginia is an open question. The enthusiasm of one supporter, Betty Thompson, 72, a substitute teacher from Lincoln County, transcended partisan labels. “Is he a Democrat or a Republican?” Thompson asked, uncertain of the answer. “I’d vote for him no matter what.”
Ojeda’s apparent surge has prompted comparisons to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the populist Democrat from New York City who knocked off a senior member of the House leadership in a primary. But Ojeda is not a leftist candidate: he does not want to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement or provide Medicare for all. He is pro-coal, while denouncing how coal companies stripped the state’s resources and left none of the wealth behind. He supports a public option to buy into Medicare and a pathway to citizenship for some immigrants in the country illegally, but he opposes universal background checks for gun buyers.
And like 73 percent of voters in his district, he voted for Trump in 2016. It is a choice he now regrets.
He called the Trump presidency a “train wreck,” including the way that Trump, who met last week with NATO members, has “villainized our allies.”
“He said, ‘I’m going to take all them jobs from overseas and bring them to America,'” Ojeda said. “He hasn’t brought them to West Virginia. We still struggle on everything.”
Ojeda’s paternal grandfather was a Mexican migrant who came to southern West Virginia to work as a miner. (The family pronounces their surname oh-JEH-da, not oh-HEE-da.) When Ojeda graduated from high school, he said he had just three options: “Dig coal, sell dope or join the Army.”
After retiring 25 years later as a major, he returned to his native Logan County, only to find people there worse off than when he left, because of coal’s decline and the growing opioid crisis.
After the Army and before entering politics, he taught high school, and recalled seeing cafeteria workers bringing out trays of extra food on one of his first days on the job. “I watched girls climb over tables to grab fistfuls of corn dogs,” he said. “I was floored. What did I just see? I realized they were sticking them in their purse because that was food for later.”
Even more than for his politics, Ojeda is known for his big personality, with a gung-ho idea of leadership and a rousing speaking style. He is George Patton with an Appalachian twang and minus the profanity.
“I’ve got 13 names on my back of brothers that did not come home,” he told a gathering of teachers and other union members, referring to some of his many tattoos. “They did not die so we could come home and find children struggling, people dying of the opioid crisis and companies and groups greasing people’s pockets.”
For all his momentum, though, most nonpartisan analysts still rate Miller, 67, as the favorite in the race. She has ties to the state’s business community, including her husband’s family auto dealerships, and her personal wealth could let her drown out Ojeda on television in the homestretch of the campaign.
Miller has lent her campaign $215,000, but Ojeda managed to outraise her in the latest reporting period, collecting $300,000 in contributions to her $279,000.
Ojeda’s greatest advantage may be simply that there are teachers or relatives of teachers everywhere.
The school walkout that erupted over nine days in late winter, when striking educators and support personnel flooded the Capitol and the Republican governor and Legislature capitulated, has scrambled assumptions about politics in West Virginia. A longtime state senator who had accused strikers of holding children “hostage” was defeated in a Republican primary in May by a rival who pulled in union donations. Jane Baumgardner, a retiree in Huntington, said she was uncertain about either candidate in the 3rd District race until she remembered that her daughter, a school counselor, had told her she loved Ojeda. Baumgardner said she would vote for him as well.
Huntington, the state’s second-largest city, is Miller’s home. On a recent Friday, Marjorie and Clarence Bailey, both 73, were strolling in Ritter Park, an affluent neighborhood of the city. Both support Miller.
Bailey said she opposed the 5 percent pay raise the teachers won by striking. “I think they get enough time off as it is, and they shouldn’t complain if they get lower money,” she said.
Her husband, retired from a mine supply company, called an effort by Miller to make the Bible the state book “a tremendous thing.”
Not every educator backs Ojeda. Randy Snyder, who teaches special education and world history at Huntington High School, had mixed feelings about how union leaders handled the strike. Calling himself “generally on the conservative side,” he said that if the election were held today, “I probably would vote for Miller.”
At Pullman Square, an upscale retail development on the Ohio River, Joe George, a financial adviser, said he was undecided.
“I like both of them,” he said. “One has a local flavor and is well established in the community. The other I also like, because of his frankness and his ability to communicate with the teachers.”
George is a Republican, but in his view, Ojeda has a good chance to win. “He took the fight to the legislators, and the teachers got a well-deserved raise,” he said. “He seems to be the champion of the people right now.”