'JFK With Tattoos' Democrat Richard Ojeda Hopes To Turn West Virginia Blue Richard Ojeda is a progressive Democrat from coal country who campaigns in combat boots. Supporters say he's the kind of Democrat who might be able to win in a solid Trump state in 2018.
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'Tea Party Liberal' Promises To Bring A Blue Wave To West Virginia

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'Tea Party Liberal' Promises To Bring A Blue Wave To West Virginia

'Tea Party Liberal' Promises To Bring A Blue Wave To West Virginia

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you go back just one generation, to the 1990s, West Virginia was a state that virtually always voted for Democrats. It was impossible to imagine otherwise. In more recent years, West Virginia swung so hard to Republicans that it's hard to imagine that ever changing. In 2016, President Trump carried the state's 3rd Congressional District, for example, by about 50 points. But could West Virginia change again? A populist Democrat thinks he can win that third district this fall. NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid has this profile.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Richard Ojeda is a military man. He says the Army was the only option he had growing up besides selling dope or digging coal. But then, in his 40s, he jumped into politics and ran for the state legislature.

RICHARD OJEDA: Because I come home from spending 24 years in the United States Army and I realize that I've got kids in my backyard that have it worse than the children I saw in Iraq and Afghanistan.

KHALID: Ojeda may be a far-fetched savior for the Democratic Party. He's only won one general election in his life, his State Senate seat. But this tattooed rabble-rouser with a buzz cut who likes to campaign in combat boots is convinced he can turn the tide for Democrats here.

OJEDA: We're going to have a blue wave in West Virginia that's going to make Virginia look like a ripple in the water.

KHALID: Ojeda's confidence would make a political analyst chuckle. After all, in his home county, Trump got 80 percent of the vote. But Ojeda says people don't understand his neighbors. They're not Republicans, he says, they're just working-class folks looking for a break.

OJEDA: Guess what? I supported Trump. I did because you know what? He was talking about putting coal miners back to work. You are sitting right here in Logan County, W.V. We are the coal fields.

KHALID: For the record, he says, Trump has turned out to be a disappointment. Ojeda campaigns as a populist. He does live videos on Facebook every couple of days. He led an effort to legalize medical marijuana. And this past January, he gave passionate speeches in the state capitol demanding teacher raises.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OJEDA: I'm telling you, we're sitting on a powder keg. If you do not think that the teachers across our state right now are saying the S-word, you're wrong.

KHALID: That S-word was strike. Teachers did strike, and they rallied around Ojeda as their champion. Some say Ojeda is a Tea Party liberal, quick to throw verbal bombs. Supporters say he's a JFK with tattoos. But Chuck Keeney, a history professor in Logan County, says Ojeda is more like a previous Republican president.

CHUCK KEENEY: I compare him to almost a Theodore Roosevelt kind of personality.

KHALID: I ask him what he means by that.

KEENEY: Teddy Roosevelt was this exuberant guy. He boxed, full of testosterone, and I see a lot of Ojeda in that. And also, Roosevelt was not afraid to go against his own party.

KHALID: Keeney says West Virginians may be socially conservative, but often, the individual matters more than party ID. So he says it's possible Ojeda could win, especially with the momentum from the teachers strike. But whether he can win is the big question.

BILL BISSETT: I think he's unscripted a great deal, but in politics, that can often be a danger.

KHALID: That's Bill Bissett. He's the president of the Chamber of Commerce in Huntington. That's the largest city in this congressional district. Bissett's chamber endorsed one Democrat and one Republican in the race but not Ojeda.

BISSETT: He may be interesting to watch. He may have a lot of people going to Facebook and watching his videos. That may not translate into votes, either in a Democratic primary or in the general election.

KHALID: Ojeda first has to make it through a contested primary, and then he would face a Republican who's more established and far better financed than him. The Republican candidates include a longtime state delegate and the former state GOP chairman. In the last election, the Republican won with nearly 70 percent of the vote here. But until 2014, this district was represented by a Democrat. So Ojeda's supporters are not listening to the naysayers. For Jim Wall, a Vietnam War vet, Ojeda is one of the most-honest politicians he's seen in ages.

JIM WALL: He's just a really nice guy, in my opinion. And nice guys hardly ever win, but I'm hoping he will.

KHALID: He's hoping Ojeda might prove that a progressive Democrat still has a chance in West Virginia. Asma Khalid, NPR News, Logan County, W.V.

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