If the blue wave crashes onto shore next Tuesday and Democrats regain control of the House, their success will most likely be traceable to a few key districts, where progressive candidates have prevailed in parts of the country that, until recently, no one could have imagined—for instance, West Virginia’s 3rd District, where Donald Trump won in 2016 by a nearly 50-point landslide. A victory there by Democrat Richard Ojeda, a former Army paratrooper who is now polling in a dead heat with Republican Carol Miller, would be the unlikeliest of stories. But even more extraordinary, perhaps, is the journey of J. D. Belcher, a local coal miner turned filmmaker whose raw, invigorating, and emotion-filled campaign videos helped launch Ojeda into the national spotlight, leading to a flood of donations from every corner of the country and appearances on an array of major news channels.
While they remain largely unknown themselves, filmmakers like Belcher, as well as Nick Hayes and Naomi Burton—the pair of 20-something Detroiters who made Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s breakthrough campaign video for under $10,000—are changing the face of House races in every state, catapulting candidates from relative obscurity into the national spotlight and making them household names in the process. In fact, if Ojeda wins and Democrats retake the House, one could make the case that the triumph might never have happened if not for a conversation almost a decade ago at a mine called Coal Mountain, where a skinny young rock hauler named Belcher got the best advice of his life from a grizzled rock loader known as Mouse.
The campaign video, released in December 2017, isn’t like other campaign videos—it feels more like the trailer for a thoughtful action film with Oscar aspirations. It begins with a tough-as-a-crowbar West Virginia state senator named Richard Ojeda, swathed in Army tattoos, pumping iron with Schwarzenegger-like intensity while talking about the decades he spent in combat zones. As the video continues, Ojeda, who’s running for US Congress, drives around his hometown, furiously defending the rights of working-class people, advocating for wider access to health care, and even singing the praises of medical marijuana. It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking, and Ojeda’s charisma and grit are palpable. No surprise, within days of its release, the video went viral. Ojeda was a coastal Democrat’s dream candidate—someone whose values they shared, but whose passionate presence and strong local ties might resonate with voters in a thoroughly red district, where the median income is about $25,000 a year and voters favored John McCain and Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by significant margins. In the video’s wake, Politico quickly dubbed Ojeda “JFK with tattoos and a bench press,” and CNN’s Van Jones brought him in for a long on-air interview, emerging visibly dazzled.
Filmmakers like Belcher are changing the face of House races in every state, catapulting candidates from relative obscurity into the national spotlight.
“There are candidates who have a great story, but no money to tell it, and nobody knows who they are. So that initial video can be crucial,” says Chuck Westover, a veteran D.C. adviser who helped labor unions mobilize voters during Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s runs for office and who recently founded Next Level Digital, a firm that leverages video content on social media to boost campaigns. “You’re defining the candidate for the rest of their political life. You need it to feel authentic, you need people to connect with it, and you need people to organically want to share it. Ojeda has a great story and he’s undeniably genuine. You can see how the video went bonkers.”
By “bonkers,” Westover is alluding to the thousands of Facebook shares the video tallied in its first week, hundreds of mentions on Twitter, and the high-powered bloggers and broadcast journalists, including hosts of the Young Turks and PBS NewsHour, who began to amplify the video’s reach.
In the old days, campaigns crafted 30-second spots and shoved their chips toward television ad spends, blasting the airwaves with videos that leaned more on bombast than narrative or nuance. But as eyeballs migrate from TV to the Web, campaigns are beginning to rely more on viewers themselves to help spread a candidate’s message to their own networks through social media. When a video gets widely shared, candidates can reap enormous rewards without denting their campaign’s war chests. And the videos that earn the most shares are the ones that find ways to be original—like ads for Arizona congressional hopeful David Brill, endorsed by six of his opponent’s siblings, or Maryland gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah, who talks about women’s representation in government while breastfeeding her baby—and those that strike on an emotional level and strive to tell a compelling story. Campaign videos exploring a candidate’s biography aren’t a new phenomenon—Bill Clinton famously became “The Man from Hope” in a video released during the 1992 Democratic Convention. But a new wave of long-form campaign “bio” videos, aired largely online, have led to meteoric rises for candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Ojeda, leaning on narrative to hook viewers and to frame an unknown person’s story for an electorate that may have never even heard their name.
Ojeda himself is quick to credit one person for the success of the video that splashed gasoline on his campaign’s fire: its creator, J. D. Belcher. “This is a local guy who understands me and understands Appalachia,” Ojeda explains. “Nobody else could have come in and made that video.”
Belcher, 33, was raised by a single mom and her parents in the coal town of Welch, in McDowell County, one of 18 counties in West Virginia’s vast, rural 3rd District. McDowell ranks among the nation’s poorest counties, and Belcher says his family was broke but tight-knit. After high school, Belcher took classes at nearby Bluefield State College before dropping out, and at the age of 19, like many of his high school classmates, he took a job in the mines, hauling coal. The job would be temporary, he figured, until he uncovered whatever it was he wanted to do with his life. He worked 60 hours a week, driving four hours round-trip each day to get to the mine and home again. Starting pay? Eleven bucks an hour. Belcher felt lucky. “Thirty-eight grand a year was nothing to shake a stick at,” he says.
After a couple of years, Belcher was hired as a heavy-equipment operator at Coal Mountain, closer to home, with a slight bump in pay. According to union regulations, in order to join the United Mine Workers of America, he needed to learn how to operate three pieces of equipment. For months, Belcher pestered his older colleagues until they trained him on a bulldozer, rock truck, and end loader, and within a couple of years he joined the union, which meant a huge jump in pay and benefits. His salary was now close to $90,000 a year, more than enough to comfortably raise a family, which he hoped to do one day. And the health coverage was equally vital: as a type 1 diabetic, the costs of Belcher’s insulin shots and medical supplies often ran close to $2,000 a month. Suddenly, a job he’d taken as a teenager was looking like a lifelong career.
Belcher treasured the rapport he built with the other guys on his night shift, brawny ballbusters called Ringeye, Luby Larry, and Chopped Meat—nicknames coined in an instant that quickly became indelible. Chicken owned a bunch of chickens. Pickle earned the name Pickle because he often misspelled the word “pickle.” Tiny weighed 400 pounds. (Belcher’s nickname was simply J. D.) And then there was Mouse, a veteran rock loader. “We spent all day, every day, talking and learning about each other,” Belcher says. “You become a family. After all, you spend more time with these guys than you do with your family.”
But as much as Belcher loved his crew in the mines—and the salary and benefits the union provided—he felt a growing lack of fulfillment, which gradually oxidized into despair. “I knew there was something else out there that was more of my calling,” he explains. As a child, Belcher had learned to draw from his grandmother, a painter, and spent his free time making his own comic books, inspired by Marvel favorites such as Spiderman and Spawn. In high school, he often noodled on a guitar his grandmother had given him as he listened to Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins. Years later, at Coal Mountain, he passed long shifts writing raps about his coworkers. During breaks, he etched intricate caricatures of his boss on the back of his logbook. And on weekends, he played bass in a metal band called Keep the Victim Warm—packing shows at a roadside bar called Rok-It, housed in a single-wide trailer, where he’d get drunk off Coors Light and then go out for omelettes with his wife Jina and the guys in his band.
Belcher had known Jina since grade school; her family ran a local food bank called Five Loaves and Two Fishes that was featured on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. She was working her way through college as a Cracker Barrel hostess when, in 2007, they reconnected over MySpace. He proposed a few months later, and they were married the next year. But Jina soon realized how miserable Belcher was in his life at Coal Mountain. “He hated it,” she says. “He was still functioning, but in this really dark space.” Every year, after New Year’s, when Belcher was allotted his new bank of sick days for the year, he’d take them all in a row, sitting out for almost the full month of January, before reluctantly grabbing his hard hat and creeping back to the mine.
One day, Mouse pulled Belcher aside. “Listen to what I’m about to tell you,” Mouse said. Sweat dripped from both their brows and their overalls were black with coal dust. “You don’t belong up here,” Mouse explained. “I mean, me and the guys, we love you. You pull your weight and then some. But you don’t belong on this strip [mine] job. You got to set your sights higher. You got something bigger to do.” Belcher was deflective, but that night he couldn’t sleep, and Mouse’s words burned in his mind.
Not long after, Belcher bought a video camera, a simple consumer-grade Canon. He’d written a script for a zombie flick that he hoped to make with some friends, and on weekends he began his first outings as a filmmaker, learning how to shoot and edit through instructional videos on YouTube. He built a three-piece DIY light kit out of old dishpans and fashioned an eight-foot camera crane by attaching a wooden dowel to a lazy Susan. Jina was happy to see him flexing his creative muscles and found ways to offer support, even if she wasn’t always pleased with his methods. One time, Belcher asked her to sit on a stool for hours as he slowly applied wrinkled latex to her face, one layer at a time, for a time-lapse sequence where she transformed into a zombie. Another time, for a scene in which a man was meant to appear buried alive, Belcher cleared out the dining room, suspended a coffin from the rafters of their log-cabin home, and, with help from his friends, drizzled buckets of dirt from above. It was common for Jina to come home from work and find fake blood splashed across the kitchen floor, where a zombie had met its gruesome death.
Belcher admits his early filmmaking efforts were awful; it was a year before he learned how to white-balance his camera, and everything he shot had a bluish tint. But he found inspiration from an unlikely source: This American Life host Ira Glass. In an online video, Glass confessed to his own struggles as a beginning radio reporter—sharing his most embarrassing early radio pieces and invoking the gradual learning curve all young artists must endure. Although Belcher knew his initial filmmaking attempts were floundering at best, he also felt committed to learning and improving his craft, despite all the failures he was sure to tally along the way.
Then, serendipity intervened. A friend hit Belcher up—he’d heard on the radio that a local car dealership was hiring an in-house videographer and editor. Belcher applied for the job, though he had no résumé and his reel was composed only of homemade outtakes of the zombie apocalypse. He was initially turned down for the job, but, thanks to a dearth of qualified candidates, the dealership reached out later to see if he would be interested in a trial run. Belcher and Jina talked it over deep into the night. On one hand, this was the kind of opportunity Belcher had long been dreaming of: something to get him out of Coal Mountain and into a creative field, even if he’d only be cutting ads for a local car lot. On the other hand, his new salary would be less than half of his old one, and his health benefits would practically evaporate—a terrifying proposition for a type 1 diabetic. In the end, after nine years hauling coal, Belcher said goodbye to Chicken and Pickle and Mouse, and he made the leap.
As much as Belcher loved his crew in the mines, he felt a growing lack of fulfillment. “I knew there was something else out there that was more of my calling.”
By 2014, flourishing in his role at the dealership, where he alternated between the shrill, high-energy ads with in-your-face graphics that his managers seemed to prefer and more low-key doc-style customer testimonials, which felt more natural to him and actually gathered more traction, Belcher’s professional trajectory shifted again. Friends of a friend asked Belcher if he’d shoot their wedding, and Belcher agreed to do it for $200. But he said he wanted to interview the couple on camera, separately, before the ceremony. The results, Jina says, were astounding: “He had this incredible talent for making them comfortable and finding their story,” she remembers. “The video was so funny and moving; it was clear he had a gift.” (The couple loved his work so much they paid him $300 instead.) Word got around, and soon Belcher had booked dozens of weddings all over West Virginia. Jina often came along as a second shooter.
In 2016, as Belcher and Jina’s daughter Norah turned two years old, Belcher asked his wife to sit down for another talk. He wanted to leave his job at the car lot to start his own company, doing wedding videos and other film work for local businesses. “I hate change,” confesses Jina. “We had a toddler, and now we’d be giving up his steady income. It was nerve-racking.” But she believed in his abilities and wanted him to have the chance to succeed on his own terms. They decided that he’d wait a year, and then make the jump. But two months later, Belcher quit his job at the car lot. Then, with his friend Cory Frazier, an ace graphic and web designer, he formed a production company called JJN Multimedia.
At first, work was slow. Because he had so few jobs booked and so much time on his hands, Belcher began to roam his hometown, looking for interesting people to interview as he continued to brush up on his craft. McDowell County was known even among West Virginians for its issues with joblessness and addiction, but Belcher felt there were more positive stories that had gone entirely ignored. In a video series he called “Motivate McDowell,” he began highlighting locals who were doing inspiring work, including Jina’s family and their volunteer-led food bank, showcasing each piece on JJN Multimedia’s Facebook page.
People began to take notice. In early 2017, the county’s convention bureau took note of Belcher’s “Motivate McDowell” series and hired him to create a McDowell County tourism campaign. And in the fall of 2017, a woman named Madalin Sammons, who was working with Ojeda on his fledgling campaign for US Congress, happened to catch one of Belcher’s McDowell County videos. She was impressed. Like the campaigns for many little-known candidates with limited resources, the Ojeda campaign had been struggling to find a way to bottle their candidate’s lightning in a form they could widely and easily share. A brief “bio” video seemed like the way to go. In Wisconsin, an ironworker named Randy Bryce had seen his campaign bio go viral, and the same had happened for a former Air Force pilot in Texas named MJ Hegar. It was clear that the right story, compellingly told, could launch a moonshot. But Sammons needed someone who could make a great video at a fraction of the cost of the usual political consulting firms, who charged anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars up to the high six figures.
Belcher was stunned when the Ojeda campaign reached out to see if he might be interested in tackling a video. He was familiar with Ojeda from his longtime support of Jina’s family’s food bank and respected his ferocious advocacy for working-class people. And he understood what a rare and transforming opportunity working on a campaign video could be. After all, Ojeda was a fiery, passionate figure with a fascinating story to tell. If he could simply manage to capture Ojeda’s essence, the video would have a chance to make waves. “I knew, OK, this is your chance,” he says. “If you don’t screw this up, this could really open some doors.” At the same time, he had to think this through carefully. Ojeda was a Democrat, and a large number of Belcher’s clients were not. He’d never made a campaign video before. Might its success put his business at risk? As usual, he talked things over with Jina, who encouraged him to establish some protocols if he was going to dip his toes into campaign politics—for example, not to make negative ads, and to work only with candidates whose integrity he trusted. In the end, Belcher felt that Ojeda’s beliefs aligned with his own, and he figured it was better for Ojeda’s story to be told by someone from the area rather than by some random outsider. He decided to follow his own storytelling instincts instead of immersing himself in a glut of campaign videos. “I didn’t want to copy how any ads had been made before,” says Belcher. “I just wanted to make something that would help people get to know Ojeda and make them want to vote for him.”
The shoot was scheduled to take place over two days last December, starting at a local gym where Ojeda liked to work out. Walking inside all alone, camera bag at his side, Belcher felt like an impostor. Even for weddings, he usually had a production assistant with him to help transfer footage and manage his gear. But he thought interviews with Ojeda and his family might feel more intimate if he filmed everything completely on his own. “I could see this skeptical look on his face,” Belcher says. “You’re running for United States Congress, and the entire film crew is a guy in jeans with the same camera you saw Aunt Meg shooting with at the family picnic. What are you bound to think?”
“He shows up,” Ojeda adds, “and I was like, ‘Umm, who are you, and where’s your crew?’”
Belcher’s first idea, to film Ojeda on a treadmill, flopped hard. They had more success once they got to the bench press. Belcher suggested that Ojeda take it easy while he got close-ups of his face—the weights were out of the shot. But Ojeda, forged without a low gear, loaded on 225 pounds and started ripping out ten reps at a time. “I thought, Holy crap, man,” Belcher says. “I knew I had to get some good shots quickly; he wasn’t going to be able to do this for hours on end.” As Ojeda moved from machine to machine, cranking out reps stacked with staggering weights, Belcher sensed he was mining gold. “It was the perfect B-roll,” he says. “Here’s a guy whose intensity in the gym matches the passion he has for helping single parents, and fighting for health-care access and working people’s wages.”
Ojeda was respectful and curious about Belcher’s process. (His only request was that the filmmaker nab a tight shot of the tattoo on his right calf—an Army paratrooper floating on his chute into combat.) Though Belcher hadn’t yet shot any interviews, he was already confident that the footage would dovetail beautifully. Each time Belcher asked Ojeda to do one more rep or move on to the next machine, Ojeda cried, “Airborne!”—a verbal tic that seemed, to Belcher, to be an all-purpose word signifying some combination of “Yes, sir,” and “Badass!”
“Let’s do the lat pull again, but this time I’ll try panning right to left.”
Later that day, back at Ojeda’s home, Belcher met Ojeda’s wife Kelly and interviewed the couple on their living-room sofa. During his 2016 campaign for state senate, Ojeda had been attacked by a man at a fundraising cookout, most likely for political reasons, and severely beaten with a lead pipe—a frightening episode that Ojeda had shouldered aside en route to victory. “If you go at Ojeda,” Belcher says, “he’s going to come back at you twice as hard. It’s part of his national appeal: someone who shares people’s beliefs but is willing to be an attack dog, too.”
But Belcher had a feeling that the incident still haunted Ojeda’s family, and he thought mining some authentic emotion might make his video all the more gripping. After warming her up with some softball questions, Belcher asked Kelly about the attack. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes as she recalled the terror she’d felt hearing that her husband had been ambushed. Kelly’s emotion seemed to stir emotion in Ojeda as well, and their quiet intimacy and resolve, which opens Belcher’s campaign video, is immediately absorbing.
Later, Belcher spent two hours interviewing Ojeda in his home office. Ojeda was tickled to discover that Belcher was married to Jina, whose family Ojeda knew from his work with the food bank. The personal connection increased Ojeda’s comfort, and soon he began to open up more deeply and share his passionate views on everything from his 24-year military career, which included tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the fights he planned to pick on behalf of the people of West Virginia once he got to Washington. At one point, getting worked up, Ojeda gave out his personal cell-phone number, and invited anyone watching the video to reach out to him anytime, with whatever was on their mind.
Belcher put his camera down for a minute, sensing an opportunity. Would it be possible, he asked Ojeda and Sammons, to actually include that bit with the phone number in the completed video? After all, Belcher said, he’d never heard of a candidate becoming so deeply accessible, and it could make for a unique, tantalizing media hook. Sammons nodded in agreement, and Ojeda said, “To hell with it. Why should a lobbyist have better access to me than my constituents?” So they filmed the chunk a second time, and again Ojeda offered his digits, this time with a more succinct lead-in.
Ojeda felt like he’d found a kind-hearted, kindred spirit in Belcher. Yet he still had moderate expectations for the video. It seemed to him that all Belcher had done was to film him chatting with locals, driving around town, and working out at the gym. But Belcher had already been cutting the video in his head, and he knew he had enough raw material to make something special. At his production office, he edited furiously for two days, then sent over a first draft. As he waited to hear back, he began to fret. “I was sure they were going to hate it,” he says. “I figured my new career making campaign videos was over before it had even started.” Belcher had accepted that failure was a necessary step on the road to success, as Ira Glass had explained, but in this moment, a rejection would also be crushing.
But Ojeda and his campaign were blown away. They emailed Belcher telling him how incredible the video was, and how impressed they were with his work. “I’m always a little critical of anything I’m in,” says Ojeda. “But I was like, ‘Goodness gracious—this is amazing. J. D. did it!’”
“I didn’t want to copy how any ads had been made before. I just wanted to make something that would help people get to know Ojeda and make them want to vote for him.”
Within 48 hours, after a couple light rounds of tweaks, the video was released on the Ojeda campaign’s Facebook page and on the social media channels of the People’s House Project, an organization built to support working-class candidates. Belcher was already back to work on his next round of wedding videos, but kept clicking over to Facebook, keeping tabs as the video’s views and shares mounted with astonishing speed. The shares flashed from 20 to 100 to 500 and soon into the thousands. Blogs began seizing on Ojeda’s intimate story and fierce passion. (Just as Belcher had predicted, the fact that Ojeda was giving out his cell number was catnip to journalists and bloggers.) Politico, the Young Turks, CNN, and MSNBC began to share clips. Virtually overnight, Ojeda sprang from being a talented but still-obscure state politician to a national rising star.
“People crave authenticity,” says Westover, of Next Level Digital. “One reason why Trump won is that he struck people as authentic, even if he has difficulty with the truth.”
In the weeks that followed, the polls shifted in Ojeda’s favor, and perhaps more importantly, tens of thousands of dollars began pouring into the Ojeda campaign from small-money donors across the country—an incredible boon to campaigns the size of Ojeda’s, adds Westover. “Now you have a war chest and can really compete, broadcasting ads and increasing your social media spend. And when people give you 5, 10, 50 bucks at a time, you’re developing a broad base of donors who you can reach out to again and again. Often enough, when your message resonates, they’ll keep giving.”
What is the impact of a viral video? As much as Belcher would love to shrug off his success (which includes plaudits from figures as diverse as Ohio congressman Tim Ryan and Hollywood director Rob Reiner) as a natural extension of Ojeda’s singular charisma, others say he catapulted the campaign’s visibility; it seems logical to conclude that the viral video positively impacted fund-raising. The breakout bio video has changed Belcher’s life, too. Krystal Ball, a former host on MSNBC and president of the People’s House Project, began hiring Belcher to shoot campaign videos for candidates in South Carolina and Virginia, plus more videos of Ojeda.
Belcher’s company has hired additional staff members to join the team as he ramps up on a bevy of new productions. He’s in the midst of launching a feature documentary called Cornered, which profiles a range of hardscrabble West Virginia boxers. And he’s in preproduction on a new podcast about Appalachian entrepreneurs. “I’m less interested in how some billionaire founded Snapchat than how Jimmy from Logan County started Jimmy’s Lawn Care,” Belcher says. He hopes sharing success stories from regional business owners will inspire others to follow suit. Belcher has also created a program for local teenagers, helping them record and produce their own podcasts as a way of sharing his storytelling skills and DIY spirit with the next generation.
As for Ojeda, he seems on the verge of pulling off the impossible—flipping one of the nation’s reddest districts to blue. While the FiveThirtyEight blog has grown bearish on his chances, recent polls show Ojeda trailing opponent Carol Miller by just a few points. And remarkably, despite the massive volume of calls that Belcher’s video has inspired, Ojeda still hasn’t changed his cell number, and his phone rings constantly; everyone from new fans in Canada, Australia, and France to Vermont senator Bernie Sanders have dialed. Even as Ojeda charges down the home stretch toward Election Day, he makes an effort to answer as many calls as he can.
Meanwhile, Belcher got a Facebook message recently from his old friend Mouse, the miner who encouraged him to set his sights high. “I told you, man!” wrote Mouse. “I knew you were meant to do great things. I’ve been keeping up with your work. I’m proud of you, brother. We’re all so proud.”