A coal country district that voted 73 percent to 23 percent for President Trump might sound like mission impossible for Democrats. Yet this race could turn out be one of the wildest of the cycle. A new Monmouth University poll shows Trump-voting Democratic state Sen. Richard Ojeda leading state Del. Carol Miller 43 percent to 41 percent for the seat Rep. Evan Jenkins vacated to run unsuccessfully for Senate.
GOP operatives admit the poll isn't a fluke, and in this case a slight lead for a Democratic candidate makes some sense. First, despite its hard swing to Republicans at the presidential level, Democrats still retain a 50 percent to 27 percent voter registration edge in West Virginia's 3rd CD. Second, popular Sen. Joe Manchin will be topping the Democratic ticket in 2018, not Hillary Clinton.
Most importantly, Democrats have a uniquely appealing candidate in Ojeda, a retired Army paratrooper who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and became a folk hero during this year's teacher strike. The tattooed Ojeda's charisma and tenacity in coal country has become the stuff of legend and an extensive POLITICO profile, and former MSNBC host Krystal Ball has made his race something of a personal mission.
Ojeda first ran against 28-year Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall in 2014, taking 34 percent in the primary after spending virtually no money. In 2016, he was viciously beaten at a campaign picnic for a state senate race in an attack he believes was politically motivated, but went on to win the seat with 59 percent at the same time Trump carried the district with 78 percent (and Ojeda's vote). This year, Ojeda beat three opponents in the Democratic primary with 52 percent.
Miller defeated six other GOP candidates in the May GOP primary with 24 percent. Miller is a bison farmer and 12-year legislator from Huntington whose family owns the well-known Dutch Miller auto dealership chain (and her father, Samuel Devine, served in Congress from Ohio). She loaned her campaign $200,000 to run ads playing up her sponsorship of a bill to make the Bible the state book and her pledge to "cut the bull" in DC.
Ojeda received three times as many primary votes as Miller, but that's mainly because so many reliably GOP voters are still registered Democrats. Democrats believe Ojeda can win if he can make it a personality contest between a rabble-rousing "badass" war hero and the wealthy, less charismatic Miller. But as Miller becomes better known and Republicans try to nationalize the race, that could be tough.
Money could be a problem for Ojeda. Ojeda won't run a traditional campaign and filed with just $78,000 on hand in late April (despite his campaign becoming something of a personal mission for former MSNBC host Krystal Ball). Meanwhile, Miller demonstrated she has the capacity to self-fund the race. An Ojeda win would be a massive coup for Democrats, but this race is competitive. It moves to the Lean Republican column.
Image: Richard Ojeda | Credit: AP Photo/John Raby