Richard Ojeda is standing for election in the heartland of Donald Trump terrain, a poverty-scarred slice of West Virginia filled with coal mines, timber farms and dollar stores. As a Democrat, this should be a Quixotic quest since he is fighting for votes in the reddest slice of the second reddest state in 2016, an area filled with the sort of struggling white families that formed the bedrock of the reality television star’s triumphant assault on the White House.
Almost three in four voters in this district backed Trump. They included Ojeda, who like others was lured by the tycoon’s vocal support for industry, his visits to the state and his rival’s dismal lack of appeal to working-class voters. But now standing in a Congressional contest that will help shape the future of a divided nation, he condemns the administration in Washington as “a friggin’ circus”. And with polls indicating he might just recover an area once fertile for Democrats by pulling off an unlikely victory, some see this bullish character as a model for fighting back against a president disrupting traditional politics.
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Shortly before I drove deep into Trumpland to talk with his supporters and enemies, the president spoke at a rally in the state. His ratings may be falling and legal problems mounting, but he stuck to his usual script with trademark attacks on ‘fake news’ and the ‘Russian witch hunt’. And away from the scorn of Washington I found many voters in West Virginia and Virginia who like how Trump is defying political norms, admire his leadership and appreciate a thriving economy. The key question as campaigning starts in earnest for critical mid-term votes in November is whether enough will stay loyal to the Republicans – or if Democrats can defeat a man they despise so deeply. At stake is not just control of Congress but possible impeachment of the 45th president.
The Democrats are still shell-shocked by Trump and his Twitterstorm style of politics, largely rudderless and struggling to find an effective riposte despite a slew of generic polls giving them a double-figure lead. Ojeda stands in fascinating contrast to both the new urban liberals and the gltizy property baron, sharing the president’s brashness but not his background – he is the grandson of a Mexican migrant who came to work in the mines. “When I graduated it was dig coal, sell dope or join the army,” he said. “And 30 years later nothing has changed.”
He joined the paratroopers – and now, aged 47, campaigns in army fatigues with a sharp buzzcut and body filled with tattoos, including some paying tribute to fallen comrades. He ticks some standard party boxes, such as backing medical cannabis. But he is defiantly pro-gun, pro-coal and, above all, a passionate advocate for the working-class whose fury over cuts, and fiery speech delivered in the state senate telling energy firms to pay more taxes to support teachers, helped spark the region’s first classroom strike in history. “No offence to New York and California but there are 48 other states in our country. What about all those Middle Americans who just want to be able to work and feed their families?”
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This is populism with an Appalachian twang – and it once led to a beating with brass knuckledusters he believes was politically motivated when he first took on his local party establishment by running for the local senate. He has said lobbyists in Washington should wear body cameras and focuses hard on mainstream labour issues. “Everyone seems to have forgotten what being a Democrat is all about,’ he told me. ‘To them it is all about money. They can’t relate to ordinary people and that’s why we’ve lost power.”
He admires Bernie Sanders, the veteran leftist who so rattled Hillary Clinton, but insists he is not a socialist but a Democrat, instantly replying “JFK” when I ask for his political hero. “No-one owes us anything but we deserve opportunities. Why is it that two miles from my home you will bleed to death in a car crash because there’s no mobile connectivity? Why do kids here have to do homework in McDonalds because there is no broadband? I want to take care of the elderly, protect medicare, stop people putting their hands in the cookie jar for social security. We should help those who want a hand up, not a handout.”
To British ears this sounds almost like Tony Blair, apart from his fondness for unions. But Ojeda says he had no desire to be a politician and – despite being a decorated army officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq – does not claim any mantle of greatness like Trump. “There are many people better than me, many more educated, but if they will not step up to the plate than I will. We need to fight for our own people.”
This is bold talk – and he remains a long shot to win. Republican strategists told me they think conservatives will be alienated by his pro-union stance when the serious political fighting and cash kicks in before voting. Regardless, he offers a fascinating alternative voice on the Democrat path back to power.
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When I left Washington to drive past the mountains of West Virginia into Ojeda’s southern district, where one-third of families live in poverty, the scale of the challenge for Democrats became rapidly clear. They may win the senate race, thanks to the popularity of their folksy and unusually consensual former governor Joe Manchin – but the president still has many fans on the ground, with far higher popularity and job approval in the state than nationally. Six in ten state residents think Trump is doing a decent job, compared with fewer than four in ten in the rest of the nation.
Arriving in the pretty town of Lewisburg, the first person I saw, rather unexpectedly, was a woman in a hijab – and she enthused about life there, unlike in her previous home on the other side of the state where she was often abused. Imaan Benmerzouga, 32, an assistant professor in osteopathic medicine, admitted she was no fan of the president but called his election “a reality check” for the United States. “In a way it is good for us to see our weaknesses, our divisions and to talk about our differences.”
She told me the town was a blue oasis in a red state. But the next six people I met were all Trump enthusiasts. “I like him and a lot of my customers like him,” said petrol station owner George Simms, 58. “They like what he is saying on immigration and pretty much everything else.” One middle-aged woman manager blamed Barack Obama for her rising health insurance costs, a second praised the president for tax cuts that had given her a $2,000 annual boost and a third said he was running the country like a business. “He’s giving Ordinary Joe hope of life again,” said Kathy Hunter, director of a local media group.
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There was one exception. I walked into Frank’s Guns, Ammo & Pawn store expecting to find a fire-breathing redneck and asked the elderly owner what he thought of Trump? “He’s an immoral, lying asshole,” replied Frank Godby, 79, to my surprise. “I dislike him intensely because he lies and he’s a braggart. He does not represent Christian values. Also I’m a coal miner’s son and the Republican party does nothing for working people. They want you to be very rich and despise you if you are poor.”
Godby added that gun sales had crashed 40% since Trump took office after people had stocked up on weapons whenever Obama or the Democrats talked of controls. But while the beltway obsesses over Trump’s lies, provocations and spats, it is the bread-and-butter issues keeping many voters content. And this is the key problem for his opponents when jobs are being created and stocks surging on a record bull run, since even under a crass, populist and protectionist president it is the economy that tends to shape elections.
Some wished he would stay off social media, of course – yet rather more of his supporters told me they liked how he was stirring up Washington and reacting to events in their kind of language. It was the same story after driving 50 miles to Fayetteville, another largely white small town in the same Congressional district. “I like the fact he says what he thinks instead of being a pussy,” said Holly Hiatt, who runs a tree surgery firm with her husband. “It may piss off a few people but it’s better this way and gets things done.”
Brooke Jones, 27, who sells clothes online, also respected the president’s bluntness. “It’s refreshing to have someone in politics who says what they think. And I like him being on Twitter because he is talking to the public so you feel it is straight from the horse’s mouth.” So what about his excesses? “He is only human so there are times I think he should bite his tongue, but we all say things we’d like to take back,” she replied. Like others, Jones also agreed with his immigration stance, even if her outlook did seem heavily informed by Fox News. “In England you have issues with terrorists from Syria and I feel he is trying to keep that from happening here. He is doing his best to protect the country.”
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Later I drove through fierce thunderstorms to Virginia, a swing state often said to reflect the nation’s divisions. Yet here I was relieved to see the limits to Trump’s disruptive brand of politics. One of his more amazing aspects is how he survived sex scandals and furores on race that would have destroyed traditional politicians, yet they seemed to scarcely dent his approval ratings until a recent slide below 40%. The reason is simple, according to one Republican analyst: this president is a seasoned performer who understands communication with ordinary Americans after years on reality television and the celebrity circuit. But this does not mean the same style works for others.
Take Corey Stewart, whom I met at a baseball match in Lynchburg and who is fighting a key senate seat against Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine. “Don’t underestimate Corey, a major chance of winning!” tweeted the president when Stewart won the nod after running against the Republican establishment. This is a man who brags of being “Trump before Trump” and boasted to me of deporting “more than 8,000” illegal migrants as chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. Stewart has also wrapped himself in the Confederate flag, compared the removal of historic statues to the actions of Islamic State and appeared alongside the far-right figure behind deadly protests in Charlottesville. Recent polls put him an average of 19 points behind in his race.
Clearly there are two key groups turned off by Trump. The first, unsurprisingly, are the ethnic minorities he trampled on to reach the White House by fighting culture wars and playing on the fears of older white voters – and who will form a majority of the US population within three decades. Among those I met in Lynchburg while talking to a Democrat woman standing for Congress was Tevin Allen, a 24-year-old social worker who came over to ask for a bumper sticker and yet seemed friendly with several of Stewart’s team. “I used to like Trump. I was all for him,” he explained. “But then came Charlottesville, when he did not condemn racism and white supremacists. Until then I had an open mind but I could not see how as a black American I could support him.”
Now Allen despaired of the Republicans on race relations, complained of “scary” cult-like support for the president and was backing their Democrat rivals. Indeed, many of the African-Americans I met were still emotionally upset by Trump’s victory, especially coming straight after the election of their nation’s first black president. “I always watch the television news but for ten days I had to turn it off after he won,” said one elderly woman in Lewisburg, her eyes filling with tears. “I was grieving so hard for my country. He just bullied his way to the presidency.” Her husband nodded beside her on the bench. “He’s a total embarrassment, turning us into laughing stock of the world,” he added.
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Then there are the suburban voters, where antipathy towards Trump has torn up the old Republican coalition and left the party’s candidates unsure whether to fight with him or against him. As in Britain these places are becoming better educated and more diverse – so more likely to be turned off by a nationalist firebrand appealing to old voters in rustbelt or rural regions. To test the water I went to Virginia’s Tenth District, where Republican Barbara Comstock is facing a fierce fight to hold her seat in an area filled with commuters from Washington and where almost half the voters intensely disapprove of their president.
The first person I met in the prosperous suburban town of McLean, a place stuffed with diplomats and government officials that was once home to Robert F Kennedy, was a 47-year-old former lawyer and mother-of-three called Julie Cox. I asked what she thought of Trump? “He is a spiteful little man who cares about no-one but himself, abusing people’s concerns and fears for the future by blaming others such as immigrants,” she replied with legal precision. “I will vote against Comstock because he needs to have less power.”
I presumed she was a diehard Democrat, yet as we talked it turned out Cox had voted for both Trump and Comstock. “I was a Republican until I lost the faith under him,” she said. And her parents and in-laws remained firmly in the president’s camp. “I think it’s cultural change – fear of the browning of America,” she said. “We can’t talk about politics any more.” As we stood beside a nice coffee shop in a suburban mall, the sun shining down on a car park filled with costly vehicles, she offered a perfect snapshot of Trump’s America: divided communities, destroyed political certainties and the disruption of all political predictability.