HUNTINGTON — The 3rd Congressional District of West Virginia is in the spotlight, with more than just West Virginians paying attention to the race between Republican Carol Miller and Democrat Richard Ojeda.
Among the factors fueling that attention: Some experts say the district has the chance of turning from red to blue. Campaign spending from outside groups is far more than the other two House of Representatives races in the Mountain State as both Republicans and Democrats strive to have control of that chamber next year. And, for the first time in decades, there is no incumbent in the race to represent the southern third of West Virginia.
The last time the district did not have an incumbent was 1977 when Nick Rahall was first elected.
Evan Jenkins, a Republican, held the seat for two terms, but he opted to run for the U.S. Senate this year and was defeated in the May GOP primary.
Ojeda, 48, of Logan, is in his first term as a state senator, winning the election in 2016 to represent District 7. He formerly taught the JROTC program in Chapmanville and is a retired U.S. Army veteran, serving three combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ojeda has been in the spotlight since he entered the race, being featured in news reports and even documentaries around the world, including a recent one, "Fahrenheit 11/9," by filmmaker Michael Moore.
Ojeda said he decided to enter the political game after he retired from the Army and returned home. He said he was devastated by the poverty he saw and wanted to do something about it.
"I think I have proven myself to be someone who can work with others, but I've also proven myself as someone who has no problem standing up for the citizens of the 3rd Congressional District" he said.
Miller, 67, a Huntington native, is currently finishing out a term in the state House of Delegates, where she has served since 2007 and most recently as a majority whip. She is also a bison farmer and business owner.
She is endorsed by President Donald Trump, and she plans to back him in his agenda. Though she declined to be interviewed for this report, Miller has stated in her Herald-Dispatch candidate questionnaire and in an op-ed submission she stands with the America First agenda.
"As a business owner and farmer, I know what it takes to create jobs because I've actually done it," she wrote in an op-ed published Tuesday. "That's one reason why President Trump, who understands business and job creation, has done a better job than President Obama, a community organizer who never created a job in his life. I know we need to lower taxes, reduce over-burdensome regulations and diversify our economy — and that's exactly what I'll do in Congress."
Ojeda, who said he voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election, told The Herald-Dispatch editorial board he doesn't support everything the president is doing, but he is pleased with the people surrounding the president, specifically Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly.
"Fm from the coalfields, and it's been a long time since we've seen the coal trains moving like they're moving right now and we are seeing miners getting up every day to feed their families, so in terms of coal production, I have to give him a plus," Ojeda said. "And he still talks about West Virginia and coal. We haven't had presidents speak about West Virginia and coal in a long time other than negatively, and I support him on that."
Despite claims to the contrary from his opponent, Ojeda said he would not support minority leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the U.S. House should the Democrats take the majority.
"Personally, I think Nancy Pelosi is not good for the Democratic Party," Ojeda said. "I think we need someone who is more in the middle and I think if we find someone who is more in the middle, then we have a better chance of getting bipartisan support."
When it comes to specific issues, Ojeda rattled off a long list of his priorities during his meeting with The Herald-Dispatch.
Coal miner pensions were first on his list.
"We have had people give their entire adult lives to the coal industry, and we have got to stop allowing these companies to use bankruptcy loopholes to get out of paying our coal miners their pensions," Ojeda said. "If they get away with this, then it will happen to others."
Miller mentions safeguarding coal miner pensions in her television ads. A big part of her campaign is being "pro-coal." In her candidate questionnaire, Miller said the country must work with the coal industry to improve working conditions.
"We need further research to identify the root of any health concerns and provide specific equipment improvements to ensure that we have safe and prosperous coal and mining industries in West Virginia," she said.
Another big issue for Ojeda was the drug and opioid epidemic. He said as a congressman, his job would be to secure funding, and said he wants to work with businesses to promote hiring people in recovery. He praised Huntington for its work in the crisis and for finding real ways to help people recover.
"We need to make sure the people responsible for this are held accountable," he said. "As a person who's been a state senator, I see how big money controls many things. Big Pharma plays a big part in this as well. We were the lab rats."
In her questionnaire, Miller says, "Congress must make resources available for rehabilitation and recovery, ensure law enforcement has the tools to crack down on drug dealers and eliminate international drug traffickers, and immediately repeal the destructive policies that have flooded our communities with opioids." She did not specify those policies.
Regarding economic development, Ojeda said southern West Virginia has the ability to have a booming technology sector. He said he has developed relationships with Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., whom he brought to Huntington recently, and also Sundar Pichai, vice president of Google. He said the low cost of living is a big incentive for businesses to locate in West Virginia.
But first, broadband capabilities need to be improved, he said.
Miller said she supports the federal government providing more funds for broadband in underserved areas, saying in her questionnaire that broadband is essential to providing a quality education and bringing economic growth to the region.
"It benefits the whole country to bring everyone up to speed," she said.
Miller said she supports the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 and credited it for creating jobs and raising wages.
"We need to strengthen our coal industry, expand our oil and natural gas energy production and diversify our economy,"
Miller said. "We cannot go back to Obama-era liberal, job-killing policies."
Throughout her submissions to The Herald-Dispatch and her advertising, Miller frequently mentions preserving Medicare and Social Security.
"You worked hard and paid into these programs all your life, and you deserve fully funded retirement and health care," she said in her questionnaire. "In Congress, I'll ensure the promises of Social Security, Medicare and all pensions are kept, and stop politicians from playing games with our retirement programs."
Throughout his campaign, Ojeda has also promised to "hold politicians' feet to the fire" to protect Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.
Regarding health care for all Americans, Miller says Congress must eliminate "Obamacare's costly mandates and allow all Americans to buy health insurance and care on the free and open market, across all state lines."
"Americans and doctors should work to decide the care that best meets their individual needs, not the federal government," she said.
Ojeda said the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, needs to be fixed, but protections for those with pre-existing conditions need to remain and Medicare expansion needs to be protected. He said he is not against a single payer system but would want to take a hard look at any proposal before throwing his full support behind it.
"I have always spoken about a public option," Ojeda said. "I think that if we give people the ability to buy into Medicare, what happens is those 1,700 insurance companies that have cornered the market would have to compete with Medicare, which means they would have to lower premiums and benefits. As a matter of fact, they would have to beat Medicare."
Another hot-button national issue is immigration, and Miller's pro-Trump stance means she is in favor of building a wall on the Mexican border.
Ojeda said the country needs immigration reform, but a wall is not the answer — adding it wouldn't put any West Virginians to work.
"I think if a person comes into this country legally and wants to become a citizen, let's put them on a path to citizenship," he said. "It shouldn't take 20 years for a person to become a citizen. I have been all over the world. I've been to more countries than I've been to states. And I've seen why people look to the United States of America as a beacon of hope, and I don't blame them. When you've got your child being snatched by a cartel and used as mules, you want to go to a place where that's not going to happen."
Early voting for the general election is occurring currently. The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 6. It is possible this will be the last election selecting a representative for a 3rd District in West Virginia, as the state's population decline may result in the loss of one of West Virginia's representatives in the U.S. House. If that occurs, the state will be divided into two districts instead of three.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.