The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For a groundbreaking candidate in West Virginia, big money and attention come with downsides

Richard Ojeda, a Democratic state senator, is running for Congress in southern West Virginia. Here, he speaks to constituents at a union hall in Smithers on Oct. 14, 2018. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Back when his campaign had raised just $7,000, when just about anyone who knew anything about politics gave him zero chance of winning, Richard Ojeda decided to make a campaign video for his run for Congress.

He was a Democrat in a district where Donald Trump won 73 percent of the vote. His team for the one-day shoot last December consisted of Madalin Sammons, 26, who only a few months earlier had been working at a Family Dollar store, and J.D. Belcher, a laid-off coal miner who made ads for a local car dealership and moonlighted in a death metal band called Keep the Victim Warm.

In other races, long-shot candidates had used viral launch videos to garner national attention and catch fire.

“So, we knew we had to have one,” Sammons said.

The pivotal moment for Ojeda came near the end of the shoot. He was headlong into a rant about something that no one can quite remember when he reached into his back pocket.

“When you call my cellphone, it’s this phone,” he said. “I’m the one that pulls it out of my pocket, and I’m the one that answers it.”

He then recited his number.

“What do you think about putting his phone number in the ad?” asked Belcher, who typically closed his car ads with the dealership’s number.

“It could be really great,” Sammons replied, “or it could be really bad.”

They asked the candidate.

“I don’t give a s---,” Ojeda said. They decided to use it.

Richard Ojeda, a Democratic state senator, is running for Congress in West Virginia. (Video: Richard Ojeda)

Ten months later, Ojeda was driving past burned-out houses and abandoned storefronts in the little coal town where he had spent his childhood and still lived. The polls had him neck and neck with his Republican opponent in the race for a vacant seat. It was 21 days until the election and his cellphone was now ringing 100 times a day with calls from all over West Virginia, the United States and the world.

“Seattle, Gaithersburg, Minneapolis, Paris, France,” Ojeda said, scrolling through his calls from earlier that day. The British ambassador was coming to West Virginia and wanted to meet for breakfast.

At a moment in American politics when authenticity is everything, Ojeda is being hailed as an unpolished, authentic voice. His sudden rise is reminiscent of President Trump, who is hailed by his supporters for breaking all the shopworn rules of modern politics.

Some of that same magic has propelled Ojeda, a 48-year-old retired Army paratrooper and current West Virginia state senator.

“There’s good people up here,” Ojeda was saying as his cellphone started to ring again.

“I just watched your ad on YouTube and I’m praying for you,” said a caller from Olympia, Wash.

“I worry you’re too bombastic,” counseled another fan from Silver Spring, Md.

“I can’t believe you exist,” added a caller from Muskegon, Mich.

Exist he does, but authenticity was easier for Ojeda when he had no money; when it was just he, Sammons, Belcher and a Sony A7S camera. Now his coffers were full. In the most recent quarter, he raised $1.4 million in campaign donations.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was sending consultants to southern West Virginia to help with more professional looking campaign ads and media buys.

The money and attention were helping Ojeda to blast out his pro-union, anti-establishment message. But Sammons, a key aide, worried the scripted ads and outside consultants were making Ojeda sound too much like a conventional politician. They were missing the very thing that had rallied blue-collar West Virginians to his cause.

Ojeda pulled onto Route 10, the two-lane highway that cuts across his district. His phone rang again. He turned down the car radio, which was playing Metallica. This time it was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“I’m doing great, sir,” said Ojeda, who apologized for southern West Virginia’s terrible cell service and asked the mayor to call him back in 10 minutes.

“This amazes me,” he said, turning to Sammons. “I don’t think I’m special.”

“We don’t think you are either,” she deadpanned.

The first time Sammons saw Ojeda, he was in her Facebook feed railing about the state of a washed-out mountain road that she traveled on her way to work. It was 2016, and Ojeda, who had retired from the Army after 24 years and multiple combat tours, was running for state senate.

Sammons had dropped out of West Virginia University after becoming pregnant with her son and was working at her tiny hometown newspaper. “I voted for him because of that road,” she said of Ojeda, who pronounces his name “O’Jeddah.” “He was the only person talking about the one thing that mattered most to me.”

Days before the Democratic primary, a man asked Ojeda to put a bumper sticker on his truck and then, as the candidate bent over to oblige, bashed him with a metal pipe. The attack broke eight bones in his face.

Ojeda, who says the attack was politically motivated, eventually won the senate seat.

Meanwhile, Sammons, like much of southern West Virginia, was struggling. The newspaper where she worked shut down, her son was diagnosed with autism, and the only place she could find work was at the Family Dollar. She said she was fired from her cashier’s job when she told her bosses that she needed to miss work to take her son to the doctor.

“I felt like I’d failed,” she said. “People automatically think you’re scanning bar codes because you can’t do anything else, but truthfully sometimes life deals you s---.”

In the summer of 2017, Ojeda announced he was running for Congress. A few weeks later Sammons sent him a Facebook message offering to volunteer. In December they pushed out his launch video.

Ojeda’s breakthrough moment came a month later when he took up the cause of the state’s teachers, whose pay ranked 47th in the nation. On Jan. 23, Ojeda stood before several hundred teachers in Mingo County. A cellphone camera captured what happened next.

“Why are we always kicking teachers in the teeth?” Ojeda railed. “Because that’s what we do!”

One month later the state’s teachers, bus drivers and cooks walked off work, the first of many such strikes that swept across the nation last spring.

Ojeda regularly took to Facebook Live to rally the striking teachers and keep them updated on the latest moves in the legislature.

“Who has been the winners in this legislative session?” he barked into his phone on a day when lawmakers tried to whittle down a proposed 5 percent pay raise. “Big energy and big pharma.” The post drew 222,000 views.

The teachers won the 5 percent pay hike in March. “Make no mistake about it — this victory is yours!” Ojeda screamed through a bullhorn to teachers gathered in the capitol.

He easily won the Democratic primary in May. A Monmouth University poll in June gave him a narrow lead over his Republican challenger Carol Miller, the majority whip in the West Virginia House of Delegates and daughter of a former Ohio congressman.

Sammons keeps a photo of that moment from June on her phone. She had just woken up and was still dressed in her Star Wars pajamas when she saw the news online and fell to her knees. “I was full-blown shaking,” she recalled.

Suddenly victory seemed possible.

By October, however, Ojeda was narrowly trailing his Republican challenger.

Ojeda blamed the take-no-prisoners Senate hearings to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, which reinforced the country’s tribal politics and whipped up anger at Democrats. Sammons worried that the sense of hope and pride that Ojeda had inspired during the teacher strike wasn’t coming through enough in the campaign.

In September, after his campaign began to amass a war chest and attention from the party leadership, Ojeda had tapped the Washington-based firm that worked on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. In one of the initial ads they shot, Ojeda is dressed in a shirt and tie as he talks to voters. A stentorian voice-over described his plans to protect Social Security, “diversify the economy” and protect the coal industry.

Ojeda complained that the ad didn’t feel like him. One of the scripts had him decrying Washington’s “cynical ways.”

“I don’t say cynical ways,” he said. “That’s not a word I use. I’d say ‘bootlickers.’ ”

Ojeda asked Sammons to take the lead in writing the first draft of his next batch of spots, which began running in late September.

In those ads he’s dressed in combat boots, cargo pants and military-themed T-shirts. “Blood is the ink of freedom,” read one. Another carried the number “22,” a reference to the number of veterans who commit suicide every day.

Sammons said that if the Facebook Live videos were better quality, she would just run them. In those moments, she recalled, Ojeda was totally unscripted and sputtering with frustration and outrage. He sounded like her neighbors and friends.

With 19 days until the election, she was fretting over a script with Randy Jones, Ojeda’s 26-year-old political director, who grew up in Morgantown. She hoped the ad would hark back to the rough and sometimes radical spirit that had fueled West Virginia’s coal strikes decades earlier and motivated its teachers this year.

To her ear, though, the script didn’t sound like Ojeda.

“I’m Richard Ojeda and I approved this message because I’m not done fighting,” she read as she pinched her lower lip with her pink nails. “You and every other politician,” she said. “It just sounds cheesy.”

Ojeda and Sammons climbed into his red SUV and headed to Pineville, 50 miles south, where a coal mine had gone bankrupt a day earlier, leaving 400 people without jobs and worried about their pensions.

“It’s so easy to steal from the bottom 99 percent,” Ojeda told two dozen miners who had gathered in a parking lot, “but try stealing from the top one percent and they put you under the jail.”

A few feet away Sammons was holding her boss’s phone, which was buzzing with calls and messages from around the country: Georgia, Ohio, New Jersey.

“I don’t know if this is real, but I just saw your ad,” read a text message from Texas. “May God bless your family. I hope you win.”

Sammons pulled one of the miners aside to record a short message for Ojeda’s Facebook page. “This is a chance to let people know what your lives are like and what you’re going through,” she said. She held up Ojeda’s phone and pressed record.

“I pray everyone across the nation sees us and don’t just put us in the category of dumb old coal miners,” the man said.

On a rare day off from Ojeda and the campaign, Sammons was driving through Gilbert, the coal town where she grew up.

“That used to be a grocery store,” she said, pointing to an empty building. “That was a hardware store. This used to be a flower shop.”

Sammons rolled to a stop in front of a battered bungalow where she lived until the fifth grade. Her father, who she said spent time in prison, stayed there now. “My dad just lives day-to-day,” she said. Sammons lives with her aunt and uncle, who raised her and help her look after her son.

She pointed to a rotting porch. “Dad was so proud when he built that for my mom,” she said. “Now you see it’s caved in.”

She knocked on the door. No answer. Sammons headed to McDonald’s to talk with the restaurant manager, who had been her boss in high school. Now he was one of her sounding boards in a district where polling is notoriously unreliable.

She asked about Ojeda. “I’m kind of on the fence,” the manager said. “I like him but he’s the wrong party.”

And she asked about Miller, who rarely talks to the media and has declined to debate Ojeda. “I don’t hear nothing from her,” the manager said. “I need to Google that girl and learn something about her.” (Miller did not respond questions for this story.)

Sammons asked her former boss which was more important to him: A congressman who understood his life and would fight for him or keeping the Republican majority in Congress.

“Keeping the majority,” he said.

Seventeen days until Election Day. Ojeda and his team gathered to make the last batch of four campaign ads. On that first shoot, 11 months earlier, the crew consisted of only Sammons and Belcher.

Now it was about a dozen people, including the director, who had flown in from Washington.

Ojeda and the team ran through the spots with the director, in an Amherst College baseball cap, coaching the candidate, in his 82nd Airborne Division T-shirt.

“A touch more energy this time,” he told Ojeda.

“Move your left arm down,” he prodded.

“A little gravitas,” the director counseled.

One of the ads was designed to blunt Trump’s recent criticism of Ojeda as a “wacky” and “stone cold crazy.” Ojeda’s initial, off-the-cuff response had been to embrace the label.

“If I’m crazy . . . because it’s hard for me to sleep at night knowing that we got kids who go to bed hungry, then I’ll be a crazy wacky,” he thundered in a cellphone video that Sammons posted to Ojeda’s Facebook page.

In the scripted ad, Ojeda was more measured, noting that he had voted for Trump in 2016 “because he came here and said he would help.” He promised to “work with the president when he puts West Virginia first.”

A few days later, Ojeda and Sammons watched the finished product from the Washington team. Ojeda wanted an ad that connected to southern West Virginia’s working-class roots and its long history of labor unrest. “There’s a deep sense of pride that goes back centuries to the mine wars and being on the front lines of working-class issues like the teachers strike,” Sammons said.

The ads from the Washington team didn’t capture that spirit, Sammons worried.

In the final days of his campaign, Ojeda had all the money he would ever need to make a polished political ad. He decided the best move was to return to the moment when no one took his campaign seriously, when he had only a few thousand dollars in the bank.

He asked Sammons to call Belcher, the former coal miner who made his first video. “We want an ad that wraps up the last year,” she told him in late October.

Could he pull all of that together in a 30-second closing spot?

Belcher had more than four hours of interviews with Ojeda from the December ad shoot and second session in May. He had also filmed Ojeda lifting weights and rallying teachers and communications workers during separate strikes in February.

All that footage went into the spot, which took a half day to make.

“I wanted it look like a ‘Batman’ trailer,” Belcher said, “not an ad for Congress.”

Ojeda saw it and instantly decided to go with it.

“I’m sick and tired of the same paper cutout politicians,” the candidate thunders in the opening line of the new ad. It ends with him cheering on the striking teachers at the capitol.

“I will stand with the working-class citizens over all else,” he yells to them. “West Virginia built this nation . . . we deserve respect.”

The commercial fades out with a shot of Ojeda and his son standing atop a mountain.

“Win or lose,” Sammons said a few hours after the final decision had been made. “That’s the message we want to close on.”