Can Democrats use class politics to steal Trump's thunder?
In West Virginia's 3rd Congressional District, it appears the Democratic Party's political fortunes have improved sharply over the last two years. In a district that both President Trump and incumbent Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins won by about 50 points, Democratic challenger state Sen. Richard Ojeda is polling two points ahead of his Republican opponent Del. Carol Miller (Jenkins tried for the Senate seat currently held by Joe Manchin, but lost the primary).
The overwhelmingly likely reason? Ojeda's class politics. It raises an interesting possibility: Can other Democrats adapt his strategy to steal Trump's class politics? The extant party leadership probably won't be able to do it, but if Ojeda can pull out a victory in this ludicrously lopsided district, he could blaze a trail for a new generation of Democrats.
Ojeda is a charismatic, fire-breathing rural populist of a type that used to be common in American politics, but has all but vanished over the last generation. He has a strong regional accent, and is full of visceral outrage delivered with bold, vivid language. Even Bernie Sanders, the national politician who is probably closest to Ojeda politically, has a far more cerebral political style, with speeches full of complicated wealth statistics and policy arguments.
But that doesn't mean Ojeda is dumb, of course. On the contrary (as I discovered when I interviewed him for a previous article), while he is a bit unfamiliar with macroeconomic policy, he has a sophisticated understanding of why West Virginia is in such a parlous state, and is a quick thinker on his feet. He accurately describes the state as a sort of internal resource colony, run by sociopathic coal barons who view the citizenry as tools to be mercilessly exploited and then discarded when they wear out (or get black lung). He understands the state will need drastic economic reforms to restore shared prosperity, and sustained federal attention to solve multiple severe social crises — most notably the opioid overdose epidemic, which has ravaged the whole Appalachian region.
Ojeda's affect and language pretty much have to be key to his success. Class politics takes more than position papers; you also have to convince the voters you really mean it — that you understand how grossly unjust the American economy is, and that you hate and are hated by the right people. Ojeda's accent and his anger aren't a put-on, but they are an important way that he signals credibility. It demonstrates that he is culturally different from the typical droning-monotone Democratic candidates, who tend to sound like something hatched out of a white-collar professional cloning vat. More importantly, it incites the rage of the local economic elite — "I don't give a sh-t about Big Energy!" he says — strong evidence that he is not beholden to such people, and will actually vote against them if given a chance. (Sanders accomplishes something similar with his speeches about how "millionaires and billionaires" have rigged the economy and the political system.)
It helps that Ojeda's opponent is enormously wealthy due largely to her husband's inherited car dealership business, and even owns stock in a local opioid manufacturer.
Trump's 2016 campaign had a lot of this coarse, anti-establishment economic populism. His speeches were vague on policy details, but still painted a picture in which all the neoliberalism-induced human wreckage of the last 30 years would be fixed, and everyone would have a high-paying manufacturing job. The populism was mixed in with a lot of vile anti-immigrant animus and other bigotry, but it was there.
Ojeda says that's basically why he voted for Trump, something he now regrets because all the populist rhetoric turned out to be a scam. "All he's done … is shown that he's taking care of the daggone people he's supposed to be getting rid of," Ojeda says. That is a pretty severe error — but on the other hand, Ojeda is now stealing Trump's thunder in the state with his second-highest vote margin. It might even augur the return of a brand of Democratic Party politics that could actually compete in West Virginia.
Could other Democrats try the same trick? Certainly not Chuck Schumer, with his tired "gas prices, amirite?" shtick, and certainly not anybody who is planning on dipping into the $80 million that Michael Bloomberg reportedly plans on spending on Democratic midterm candidates who share his brand of limp milquetoast centrism.
But if Ojeda can make up 50 points with righteous populist anger and swearing a blue streak, while taking no corporate or business PAC donations, people who aren't already completely compromised by the Democratic donor class might sit up and take notice. Such politics will have to be tailored to individual districts, of course, and probably won't play well in wealthy white suburbs. But for any non-incumbent Democrat who wants to win in the former party strongholds where Hillary Clinton lost the presidency, Ojeda is a man to watch.