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Can A Trump Voter From West Virginia Win The 2020 Democratic Primary?

UPDATE (Jan. 25, 2018, 2:37 p.m.): Richard Ojeda has ended his presidential campaign.

I drove down to West Virginia in early March, during the teacher strike. While President Trump had won the state with 68 percent of the vote in 2016, the strike seemed like a bit of old West Virginia peeking through, reminiscent of a time when labor unions and the Democratic Party dominated the state’s politics.

The halls of the Capitol in Charleston were sweating hot when I got there, filled with hundreds of teachers looking for a pay raise. The strike would go on for two weeks, and clever signs were the favorite medium of the teachers. One that caught my eye was a poster that name-checked two of the most high-profile members of the state Senate: “In a world of Carmichaels, be an Ojeda.”

Carmichael was Mitch Carmichael, Republican president of the West Virginia Senate, whom teachers were blaming for stonewalling their pay raise. Ojeda was Richard Ojeda, a Democrat from Logan County and one of the more vocal supporters of the striking teachers. A former Army paratrooper who looks like it and who speaks every word of every sentence with concentrated intensity, Ojeda had become known for his unrehearsed Facebook live talks and unvarnished advocacy for a working man’s Democratic Party.

On Monday, the day after Veterans Day, eight months after the teacher strike and less than one week after he lost a congressional bid, Ojeda declared his intention to run for president in front of the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Ojeda is one of the first Democrats to officially declare his candidacy for 2020, and although he doesn’t enter the contest as a buzzy national front-runner, he’s a former Trump voter with a case to make.

The proposition of Ojeda’s 2020 candidacy is surely to win voters like himself — Democrats who voted for Trump or just plain old Republicans — back to the side of the Democratic Party. In his 2018 bid for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, Ojeda lost to the Republican, but he got 43.6 percent of the vote, 20 points more than the Democrat who ran in 2016 did. Ojeda outperformed his district’s partisan lean by about 24 points — one of the best showings in the nation. There’s proof that at least in West Virginia, Ojeda is a Democrat who has across-the-aisle appeal.

I spoke to Ojeda in his office for little under an hour back in March. That day he wore a ribbon commemorating the service of public employees and the highest, tightest fade I’d seen in quite some time. His office was packed with military memorabilia, tokens of his 24 years of service in the U.S. Army. There were flags, pictures of Ojeda in combat gear, and a framed poster in Arabic depicting voting procedures that was, he told me, a souvenir from the first free election in Iraq post-Saddam.

“You deploy and you go to these other countries because you want those other countries to get a sliver of what you enjoy back in America,” Ojeda said. But he ended up in the military in large part because that was his best option growing up in impoverished southern West Virginia. “When I graduated high school at the age of 18 in Logan County, which is the coal fields, there’s only three choices: dig coal, sell dope, join the Army.”

For much of his Army career, Ojeda was based out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, but he started getting into politics when he began coming back to his home state more often in 2012. “When I got home, I saw how bad things were,” Ojeda said. The military had been something of a pleasant bubble. “You live on a base and everyone to your left and right, we’re all the same mindset,” he said. “Everybody takes care of their stuff, everyone’s kids play soccer together. It’s just a wonderful life.”

Ojeda made an unsuccessful 2014 bid for Congress before winning his West Virginia Senate seat in 2016. That was also the year Ojeda supported Trump for president, something that’s sure to get some attention during the 2020 Democratic primary. When I asked Ojeda about his vote, he was frank about his support for the president:

This is why I supported Donald Trump: Because I live in Logan County, West Virginia, and when the coal industry is down, everyone suffers. The coal miner has their car and everything they own for sale. The stores don’t get no business, and they shut down. Even the funeral homes are doing nothing but cremations because no one can afford a funeral. It’s horrible. I supported him because he says, ‘I’m going to put West Virginians back to work, and I’m going to put those coal miners back to work.’

Although Ojeda no longer supports the president, his voting for a Republican was nothing new. “I don’t think I’ve ever voted for a Democrat for president [in a general election],” he told me.

In a Democratic Party whose core membership has become increasingly liberal over the past decade, Ojeda’s candidacy is likely to face an uphill battle. Elements of the Democratic primary electorate might hold his vote for Trump against Ojeda, despite the fact that he has been a vocal advocate for progressive causes, like the legalization of marijuana, though on some issues he skews more conservative. Ojeda is anti-abortion, except in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother is endangered, and he is pro-gun rights. Ojeda is, like many West Virginia Democrats, a throwback to the Democratic Party of previous decades. It’s an appeal that might play well with so-called Obama-Trump voters, but how powerful that demographic will be in the Democratic primary remains to be seen. Only 4 percent of Iowa’s Democratic caucus-goers in 2016 identified as “conservative.” Same in New Hampshire.

When he talked about national party politics, Ojeda could sound a bit like Bernie Sanders, whom Ojeda supported in the 2016 Democratic primary. “The reason why the Democratic Party has fallen from grace in many cases is because they keep supporting the candidate that has the most money, but that’s not the candidate who can relate to the people,” he told me in March.

And Ojeda is certainly not your prototypical polished national politician, the kind who floats focus-group-tested lines. He’s intense when he talks politics, in part because he’s had to deal with some particularly rough-and-tumble stuff during his short career in public office. When he ran in 2016, Ojeda was hospitalized after a brutal attack that he says was politically motivated; he was attacked from behind by a Logan County man and beaten with brass knuckles while putting a political bumper sticker on a car.

I asked Ojeda if he was worried about more attacks as a high-profile Democrat in a state now known for its Republican bent.

“Come from the front,” Ojeda said of his would-be foes. “If you come from the front, you’ll shit your teeth.”

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.