Can This Left-Wing Populist Blow Up the 2020 Election?
“But make no mistake about it [Donald Trump]. You’re going to know my name.”
So said State Senator Richard Ojeda in his concession speech after being defeated in his House bid in West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District. Ojeda lost the open seat to Republican Carol Miller by a 13 percent margin in what on its face wasn’t a particularly noteworthy race. But in context, he had reason to feel triumphant in defeat. In 2016, Donald Trump had carried the district by 49 percent. Making up a 36 percent deficit, Ojeda accomplished the largest voter swing in the 2018 midterms.
After he lost, it was expected that he would challenge freshman Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito in the next cycle. What was unexpected was his declaring for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Because Ojeda, a 48-year-old with 36 tattoos and a military-issue buzz cut, does not match a pundit’s sketch of what a national Democratic contender should look like.
Entering the United States Army as a private after high school, Ojeda served for 24 years as a paratrooper, retiring with the rank of major and two Bronze Stars. On one hand, he says he’s been a Democrat since he first registered to vote; on the other, he can’t remember ever voting for a Democrat for president. In 2016, he supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, and after Hillary won the nomination, he cast his vote for Donald Trump in November.
That same year, he was elected to the West Virginia State Senate, the only election he’s ever won. One could say he earned it the hard way: at a barbecue campaign event just before his primary in May 2016, he was beaten unconscious by another man wearing a steel-toed boot and brass knuckles. Ojeda told reporters at the time that he believed the attack was politically motivated because he was “questioning leaders” and publicly calling out entrenched nepotism in the government system.
During his first three months in office, he shepherded a bill to legalize medical marijuana to the governor’s desk, accomplishing one of his key goals through sheer willpower. And as a freshman senator in a minority party, he gained recognition by becoming one of the primary cheerleaders of a statewide teachers’ strike earlier this year. The strike ended with a 5 percent pay raise for teachers and Ojeda becoming a folk hero to West Virginia’s largest unionized workforce.
Ojeda’s profile went national during his congressional campaign with a series of hard-talking ads in which he directly addressed the camera and accused his opponent of financially benefiting from the opioid crisis.
Ojeda’s voting record isn’t the only thing out of step with the national Democratic establishment. In a party whose face is increasingly non-white and female, a white male military vet from West Virginia doesn’t scream “inclusion.” Ojeda’s paternal grandfather was actually an illegal immigrant from Mexico, back when the family name was pronounced “O-Hayda” (long since Americanized, the current pronunciation is “O-Jeddah,” with the candidate placing a strong emphasis on the “J”). President Trump caused controversy during a campaign rally when he used the traditional Spanish pronunciation and called Ojeda a “stone cold crazy wacko.”
On policy, Ojeda is thoroughly progressive and has tilted leftward since his presidential announcement. While he previously took a more nuanced view on abortion, he has come out strongly for repealing both the Hyde Amendment and the Helms Amendment, as well as quadrupling Planned Parenthood’s funding.
His energy views have also shifted. Previously campaigning on the message “I do not believe coal is dead” and praising the Trump administration’s overhaul of Obama-era regulations, he’s since attempted to make himself more palatable to liberal environmentalists. Trying to find a middle ground, Ojeda has said he agrees with the need to promote green energy and combat climate change “while also making sure that American families who depend on industries like coal can still feed their families.” He’s continued to say that coal (specifically West Virginian coal) will always play a small part in the discussion due to its use in steel production.
He favors a single-payer, Medicare-for-all health care system with an explicit ban on “Cadillac plans” for the wealthy and well connected.
He supports DACA and a quickened pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country. He opposes Trump’s transgender military ban and has defended Colin Kaepernick (while making clear that he always stands for the national anthem). Expanding off of one of his key legislative accomplishments, Ojeda advocates for the full decriminalization of marijuana, which he thinks will not only go a long way towards solving prison overpopulation, but also strike at the heart of Big Pharma.
Ojeda supports firearm background checks and calls the NRA “absolute garbage” but describes himself as a believer in the Second Amendment and specifically defends the AR-15.
His foreign policy, unfortunately, is underwhelming. Though he criticized Saudi Arabia in a recent series of tweets, including its connections to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the war on Yemen, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, most of his messaging has been the usual bromides about supporting a “strong military” and “keeping America safe.” He hasn’t emphasized his opinions on either the benefits or negatives of foreign intervention.
For his campaign launch, Ojeda instead chose a tripartite attack on elitism, corruption, and cronyism. As his website says:
We ask our men and women in uniform to put their lives on the line. Many make the ultimate sacrifice. They do so for modest salaries and no chance at great wealth, out of love of country. But our elected representatives and our president, they get rich feeding at the trough of public service. Year after year congressmen making $175,000 per year suddenly are worth millions of dollars. And when they leave public service, then the cashing in really begins. Most of them have no idea what it’s like to try to put food on the table or tell their kids that they can’t afford college. They don’t use the same healthcare as us, they send their kids to private schools, they have their own security.
Ojeda’s plan would force every member of Congress, the president and vice president, and all appointed Cabinet members to cede all net wealth over a million dollars to charities of their choosing (“a real charity, not some family foundation run by their kids”). Retirees from office would collect a $130,000 pension, with a combined ceiling of $250,000 for privately acquired income (“If you really want to sell your country out to Big Pharma, all you can get in return for your soul is $120,000”). And returning to his ban on “Cadillac plans,” all federal officials would be mandated to have the same health care packages as average Americans.
It wasn’t long after his 2016 vote that Ojeda turned on Trump, laying into him for false promises and a faux regard for the working class. His favorite ongoing nickname is “President Bone Spurs,” mocking Trump’s medical deferment during the Vietnam War.
The irony is that Ojeda wants to bring to the Democratic Party the mirror image of what Trump brought to the Republicans: left-wing populism. What Ojeda represents is not racial identity politics or neoliberal centrism or ivory tower progressivism; it’s a class-based brand of labor politics sprung right out of America’s heartland.
Centered on the working poor, Ojeda’s platform is built on unions, well-funded social services, and anti-elitism. This potent mix is more than just cooked up #Resistance mantra: it contains ideas of real depth that have a long history in the American psyche. This includes a hostility to big business, and while Ojeda isn’t necessarily contemptuous of big government, he is at least against big managers. His “Service Requires Sacrifice Mission” is the Democratic answer to “Drain the Swamp.” His newly rediscovered attitudes on abortion and environmentalism have been stapled onto a revving engine of anti-special interest populism.
Much of this platform is obviously inspired by Bernie Sanders’ insurgent 2016 campaign. But unlike Sanders, Ojeda doesn’t have a multi-million-dollar net worth or multiple homes, and thus cannot be called a hypocrite or inauthentic.
The logic behind Ojeda’s candidacy is that his left-wing populism will swing millions of middle American working-class Trump voters (like himself) back to the Democratic Party, just as he almost did in West Virginia 3rd. His is a message that will find resonance in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, states he’s never set foot in.
What Ojeda doesn’t have is money, name recognition, or political experience in what is set to be one of the most crowded presidential primaries in living memory. Between Kamala Harris’s coalition of the aggrieved, Elizabeth Warren’s alliance of eggheads, and Joe Biden’s amalgam of elder party retirees, is there room for a blunt-talking soldier campaigning against cronyism? Maybe. His odds are higher than those of media darlings Cory Booker and Julian Castro.
If the improbable does happen and Ojeda emerges from this metaphorical fourth tour of combat duty victorious, 2020 would become a bloodsport. We’d see two ideological ends of the populist wave crashing against each other. It would alter the country permanently.
As Ojeda himself would say, “It’s time to knuckle up.”
Hunter DeRensis is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative and a student at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.