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West Virginia was once a Democratic stronghold, but its political landscape has shifted solidly Republican in recent elections: in 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by 42%. But now, a Democratic congressional candidate who himself voted for Trump is resonating with the state’s residents. Yamiche Alcindor reports on Richard Ojeda and a surprisingly close contest.
Now a look at a surprisingly competitive congressional race unfolding in West Virginia, where a Democrat is making noise in a district President Trump dominated.
Yamiche Alcindor has this report.
A Democrat in Trump country, and some considering a leap of faith.
At Bridge Day in Fayetteville, West Virginia, tens of thousands of people came out to watch base jumpers, and talk about a surprisingly competitive race.
Democratic State Senator Richard Ojeda and state delegate Carol Miller, a Republican, are fighting to win a seat in Congress once thought to be solidly red. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in this district by 42 percent.
We're going nothing but the filthy rich and the dirt poor.
But Ojeda, a 24-year Army veteran, has managed to make this race a nail-biter.
I'm a UMWA man. We need you.
Miller, a businesswoman who owns several car dealerships and a bison farm, declined to be Interviewed.
But in ads like this, she stressed her connection with the president.
President Donald Trump:
A woman that works very hard for you, Carol Miller.
At Bridge Day, that endorsement seemed to carry significant weight.
It would be Carol Miller, and that's a vote for Mr. Donald Trump. That's my entire reason for voting for her.
Others were unhappy with the direction of the Democratic Party.
They left me. They left me, my morals. I think they're getting very weak on the Second Amendment. I'm pro-life 100 percent.
That, in part, has led to the shifting political landscape in West Virginia.
West Virginia was once a Democratic stronghold. But Republicans have made major inroads here. Now Democrats are wondering if Ojeda can be a model for taking back control in this state and others across the country.
We have got to get back to what the Democratic Party really was about.
We create opportunities for those who live in poverty.
At rallies and in Facebook videos, Ojeda rails against corporate money and lobbyists.
They're bootlickers, ladies and gentlemen.
He's won the backing of the state's largest coal and teachers unions. He also supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and legalizing recreational marijuana.
Yet, Ojeda voted for President Trump.
Am I happy with him now? I'm not. But the thing about it is, I'm willing to stand in a corner and let people throw stones at me for supporting Donald Trump. But I will tell you what. Where I come from, the coal mines are operational.
Is there anything about him personally that's changed that made you not want to support him?
When you're the president of the United States, you're the president over every single citizen in the country, OK? Not just the Republicans. Put your cell phone away. Be the president.
Like the president, he's pro-coal.
How do you square your interest in environmental issues and the environment with your support with — for coal?
I want to make sure that our water and air are taken care of. I want to stop those things that cause those issues. But I still think there is a way to be able to mine our coal.
And if you want to come down here and you want to pull the plug on coal, bring me something down here, so that my coal miners can transition. And I don't mean minimum wage jobs.
And he spared little criticism for many of his fellow Democrats, who he says have forgotten about West Virginia.
Let's go ahead and start about why Democrats lost power. You want to know why? Because they sucked. They sucked. They got to the point where they were in office for so long. And you know what? People finally got tired of it, and they got kicked to the curb.
He talks like them, he dresses like them, and expresses the anger that they feel.
Mike Plante is a longtime Democratic strategist based in Charleston.
For a Democrat to reach across and get enough Republicans to be successful, or vice versa, you have to be seen as somebody who's not part of the political establishment that people have lost confidence in.
Brandon Blankenship understands that appeal. He grew up in a staunchly conservative family and has been a Republican all his life.
But after running into Ojeda at a restaurant and talking to him for an hour, Blankenship decided to vote for him.
Even if I don't agree with everything that he says, it means more to me that you do. I need you to believe in what you're saying, not just say it because you think it's what people want to hear. He believes what he's saying.
Blankenship, no relation to Don Blankenship, the coal mine owner turned political candidate, works as an EMT, but says he and his wife don't have health insurance. He's hoping Ojeda's support for a public insurance option will lower health care prices.
I get to see these patients' hospital bills and their ambulance bills. For eight hours in a hospital, it would wreck my family for the next nine months.
Other Republicans have painted Ojeda as a socialist and say his policies will cost taxpayers too much. And the president himself has criticized his demeanor.
You can't have that person in Congress. That person is stone-cold crazy.
Despite their differences, some think Ojeda echoes President Trump's brand of politics.
Carol Pittman supports Ojeda and President Trump.
They are not going to sit around and just talk really mild and calm and say, oh, everything is going to be OK, I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that. No. Give me some excitement. Show me you're going to do it.
Republican David Roby disagrees.
There's no comparison between the two. Do I like everything Trump does? No. But, you know, that's just who he is. You take the good with the bad. What he's done positive for the country outweighs anything negative he's said or done.
The father of five works for the Department of Veterans Affairs. In his spare time, he and his wife raise chickens and grow vegetables. Inside their family's greenhouse, Roby explained his support for Carol Miller.
Carol Miller is the epitome of a job creator. Her and her husband own several car dealerships. She has a bison farm. She employs people through there. She knows how to create jobs.
Like Ojeda, Roby is a veteran. But they disagree on politics.
He's making basically the usual politician promises. I'm going to this, I'm going to do that, I'm going to do this. How? Severance tax? I mean, how are you going to pay for all these grand ideas?
Polls show only single digits separating Ojeda and Miller. Democratic strategist Mike Plante says this race should send a message ahead of 2020.
I think Democrats forgot how to tell a compelling narrative along with the data. You look at Trump's message, you know, make America great again, very simple, very compelling.
I say fight like hell and let your constituents know that's what you're doing.
That's what I believe in. That's why I will die a Democrat.
In less than two weeks, West Virginians will have an answer as to whether that strategy succeeds.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor in Fayetteville, West Virginia.
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