Why an Economic Populist Pitch Failed in Coal Country

LOGAN, W.Va. — Richard Ojeda touted himself as a completely new face of the Democratic Party: a tough guy in combat boots whose economic populism was the key to flipping coal country in addition to maybe — just maybe — a type for winning in rural America within the age of Donald J. Trump.

For a moment, Mr. Ojeda seemed poised to pull the idea off. He channeled West Virginia’s union roots when he championed a statewide teachers’ strike earlier which year. He had a plain-speaking, almost Trump-like style which attracted attention in addition to money, drawing more than $2 million in donations through around the country.

however on Tuesday he lost badly, taking just two out of the 18 counties which make up the Third Congressional District, a swath within the southern coalfields which is usually home to Mr. Ojeda in addition to many of the teachers he supported. He even lost his home county, Logan, by 24 points.

“I was absolutely slapped within the face when I saw the totals,” said Heather Ritter, a school librarian in addition to supporter of Mr. Ojeda, the day after the election.

She added, “I don’t think people understand what’s just happened in addition to the gravity of which.”

While the Democrats succeeded in winning back the House — in addition to Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia managed to hang onto his seat — the magnitude of Mr. Ojeda’s loss served as a stinging reminder to Democrats of the enduring power of Mr. Trump in rural parts of the country, particularly in Appalachia.

Mr. Ojeda’s supporters expected him to become a major force on the national stage, an important corrective to past mistakes when Democrats did not listen to working-class voters. Instead, he was dragged down by the undertow of nationalized politics — with Mr. Trump creating many visits to West Virginia in addition to supporting Mr. Ojeda’s opponent, Carol Miller, whose main appeal to voters appeared to be her connection to the president.

Antipathy toward Mr. Trump helped drive record turnout in some parts of the country, however many voters also arrived to support the president. which was especially true in West Virginia, where more than 47 percent of the state’s registered voters turned out on Tuesday — significantly more than in recent midterm years, according to the West Virginia secretary of state. In 51 interviews in 5 different towns within the district where Mr. Ojeda ran, a majority of voters said they turned out to defend the president.

Dennis McCloud, a retired coal miner within the tiny town of Dingess, said he was voting for initially in a midterm election. He said he had come to show support for Mr. Trump, who he said had been besieged by the news media in addition to Democrats.

“If he says which cone is usually red, they’ll say the idea’s blue,” said Mr. McCloud, 65, pointing to a traffic cone on the sidewalk as he stood outside an elementary school in Dingess, where he had just voted for Ms. Miller, a candidate he said he hadn’t heard much about.

“I never felt which strongly about a president before,” said Mr. McCloud, who was about to go celebrate his birthday — in addition to his vote — using a steak.

Social media also seems to have played a role in Mr. Ojeda’s loss. Supporters point to a flurry of activity on Facebook with doctored photographs aimed at discrediting him. In one, Mr. Ojeda is usually sitting in a chair in front of his campaign sign smiling in addition to holding cash like a fan. In another, a Facebook page called Veterans Against Richard Ojeda featured a picture of him altered to look like he was in makeup, pink fatigues in addition to a pink beret.

Matt Stanley, a school administrator who was staring in disbelief at the election results at Mr. Ojeda’s election night party, said he saw them as a grim sign for the American political system.

“the idea’s just disgusting which social media rules,” he said. “What he says they don’t believe, however what they see on the computer, they do believe. Explain which to me. I can’t wrap my head around the idea.”

Of Ms. Miller, he said: “She didn’t show up to anything. She didn’t have to.”

Ms. Miller, a state delegate, was relatively unknown among voters in addition to mostly avoided interviews in addition to open public appearances during the campaign. Even the men sitting in lawn chairs behind a large sign which urged voters in Dingess to choose Ms. Miller were thin on details about their candidate.

“Don’t know which much about her to be honest with you,” said Hayden Hannah, 70, a retired timber worker, “however she stands for Trump in addition to which’s enough for me.”

One of Ms. Miller’s campaign ads says she’s a bison farmer who has supported legislation to make the Bible the official book of West Virginia. Her financial disclosure forms show her household controls a businesses which include real estate, car dealerships, in addition to additional investment assets worth $11 million.

Ms. Miller did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Some voters said Mr. Ojeda had himself to blame for the poor showing. Carl Blevins, a retired coal miner in Chapmanville who said he did not like Mr. Trump in addition to his style, said he also did not support Mr. Ojeda for some of the same reasons.

“He was his own worst enemy,” Mr. Blevins said, sitting using a group of friends on Wednesday at Tudor’s Biscuit World. “There’s an arrogance, like he knows more than the rest of us.”

Mr. Trump made quite a few trips to West Virginia to stump for Republicans, most recently last Friday. He has singled out Mr. Ojeda personally, calling him “stone-cold crazy” in addition to “a total whacko.”

Mary Frances, a 78-year-old through Dingess, said she had come to vote for the sole purpose of supporting the president. She said she supported Ms. Miller, even though she did not know much about her.

“There are too many crooked politicians — one is usually about as not bad as the next one,” she said. however Mr. Trump was different, she said, in addition to he was protecting the country, including through the caravan of migrants, a large traveling group which moved through Central America into Mexico last month. “If all those people come in here the idea will decimate which country,” Ms. Frances said.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Ojeda pledged to keep fighting, however also pondered whether the idea was even possible for a Democrat to win in West Virginia’s Third Congressional District, which Mr. Trump won by nearly 50 points in 2016.

“Look, I actually don’t know what to say,” he said. “I’m not happy with the outcome, however I’m telling you right currently, any place else within the United States of America we could have won. Anyplace else. We just happened to run within the reddest — in addition to I hate to say which — an area where people just completely will fall for what we just had.”

He added: “We had a president who came down here in addition to said ‘Hey, I want you all to vote for her.’ They didn’t look in addition to say, ‘Why should we vote for her?’”