Shortly after the teacher strike, Andrew Thomas stood before his fifth-grade social studies class at Mullens Middle School in Wyoming County, lowered the lights and showed his students a video of state Sen. Richard Ojeda.
A conservative Republican who voted for Donald Trump, Thomas was fired up, much like the man on the screen. One of Ojeda's latest commercials in his run for the state's 3rd Congressional District includes footage from the strike at the Capitol in Charleston. Thomas is in for a few seconds -- right in front.
But when Thomas voted early last week, he didn’t settle on Ojeda after all. Once stirred by Ojeda's support for teachers, Thomas thought he had instead started using teachers to gain the votes he needs to get to Congress, where he thinks he will forget about them. He thought he could be too aggressive on social media. He also didn't like Ojeda’s vote last legislative session against the constitutional amendment that would move the state one step closer to banning Medicaid-funded abortions.
"I’m for a woman’s right to choose, but not funded by my tax dollars. That really was an issue for me personally, for my moral stance," Thomas said. "I couldn’t vote for him solely because he backed my profession. I had to look at the whole picture."
Though she’s a fellow Republican, House of Delegates member Carol Miller member wasn’t an option either, Thomas said, because she's received money from the pharmaceutical lobby. He left the race blank -- a decision he knows some teachers find shocking -- but he thinks others might be similarly stuck.
"What is he gonna do for teachers? He’s not gonna be a state rep anymore. He can make a bigger impact as a state rep," Thomas said.
Remember in November?
There are some, though, who are still energized by Ojeda’s campaign, like Matt McCormick, a Mountain Party voter, social studies teacher at Princeton Senior High School, in Mercer County, and an adjunct instructor at Wytheville Community College in Virginia. McCormick, who's originally from Boone County, and his wife are both teachers and local union leaders, and they already voted for Ojeda.
"I think he really has a fundamental understanding of what we face in this state in terms of health care and lack of competitive pay," McCormick said.
Ojeda, of Logan, is an Army veteran and Democratic state senator representing Logan, Boone and Lincoln counties and parts of Wayne and Mingo counties. In office since 2016, he emerged as an advocate for striking teachers demanding better pay and a fix to their health insurance program during the last legislative session.
Miller, his opponent, is the current state House Majority Whip representing parts of Cabell and Lincoln counties, but she's been a state delegate since 2007. A bison farmer and small business owner, Miller is from Huntington and has the backing of Trump and his famiy.
Eyes on the 3rd District
This race is among the most closely watched U.S. House contests in the country, and a lot of money has poured in. As of Sunday, Miller has raised $1.6 million and Ojeda has raised $2.2 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Miller's team has turned down or not responded to interview requests from several news outlets, and Ojeda’s campaign has said she won’t debate him. Nick Rahall, a Democrat who used to represent this House district, is closely watching this race, and he said he's dismayed by her approach.
"This is not what the people deserve for those seeking their trust in public office," Rahall said. "They need to see the candidate, they need to hear directly from the candidate, and they need to be able to question candidates who seek their trust."
This district voted for Trump by a 50-point margin. Polling generally has Miller slightly ahead of Ojeda in this race, but Ojeda has support from several labor unions.
Ojeda says he’s pro-coal and says he wants the state to be an energy leader again. He doesn’t support repealing the Affordable Care Act, but says he would introduce a public insurance plan that would also mean bigger tax credits for families. He supports legalizing medical cannabis, which he says could be instrumental in fighting the opioid epidemic, and he was the lead sponsor of the state’s medical marijuana law.
Ojeda is more accessible to prospective voters. He gives out his phone number in one of his ads, and says he’ll answer himself. He’s held Facebook Live town halls. McCormick said he talked to him at a concert.
"I do not agree with everything that Ojeda says," McCormick said. "I don’t really agree with him on his support of Trump’s coal policy, because I feel like it’s a detriment to the health of West Virginians. But he’s out there and he will tell you to your face exactly what he feels and what he believe, there’s no secrets with him regarding what he wants to do."
Carol Miller is more of a mystery. On her website, she says she wants to protect gas and coal,fund education, create jobs, end the opioid epidemic and support Trump. But she doesn’t offer details. She recently appeared on WOWK-TV for a candidate profile, where she repeated a familiar refrain: "I am pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-America, pro-God."
Like Ojeda, she has said she wants to protect people with pre-existing conditions if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. Appalachia has some of the highest rates of pre-existing health conditions in the nation. Trump has said they’ll be protected if Republicans repeal the ACA, but Democrats are worried that ultimately won’t be the case. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and other GOP officials have sued the federal government to repeal it.
That issue "hits home to me," said Joe White, a Democrat and the head of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, a union of 8,000 West Virginian. White, his wife and their son all have pre-existing conditions, he said.
White, of Chapmanville, Logan County, described himself as an early supporter of Ojeda when the state senator sponsored a bill in early February that would have used some natural gas severance taxes to help fund the Public Employees Insurance Agency. In addition to a raise, teachers and school service personnel asked for a fix to that health care system.
"He took it, run with it – now it didn’t see the light of day – but … he was a very strong supporter of that, and he’s been a strong supporter of education and labor," he said. "I think they will remember in November."
Election Day is Tuesday. Polls are open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.