MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Shelley Brannon, 62, can sum up the Obama presidency with three words. Well, three words and an exclamation.

“He screwed us,” said Brannon, a coal miner from Wise County, Va., as he sat outside a rally for the United Mine Workers of America. “Man, he screwed us.”

He shook his head under a camouflage hat that matched his camouflage UMWA T-shirt, and he described his fantasy of dumping nuclear waste in the yards of environmentalists, “if they think coal’s so bad.” He mulled over the mistake the UMWA had made in 2008, when it endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. Then he explained why he will probably vote for independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the next Democratic primary.

“For one thing, he knows what union is, and he respects it,” said Brannon.

West Virginia has rejected the Obama-era Democratic Party more dramatically than any state outside the South, with Appalachian counties that voted for Mike Dukakis and Walter Mondale turning blood red over the past eight years. But if you think it’s in places like this that the insurgent Sanders campaign faces its most formidable test, here’s what he thinks: It is also one of his greatest opportunities.

The socialist thinks that white, working-class voters, the sort of people Obama once self-defeatingly said “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them,” are just one honest argument away from coming back.

“We have millions of working-class people who are voting for Republican candidates whose views are diametrically opposite to what voters want,” said Sanders in an interview. “How many think it’s a great idea that we have trade policies that lead to plants in West Virginia being shut down? How many think there should be massive cuts in Pell grants, or in Social Security? In my opinion, not too many people.”

This state, one of the last to vote in the primary, is supposed to be Clinton country. Seven years ago, in 2008’s primary, West Virginia Democrats gave Hillary Rodham Clinton a landslide victory over Obama. She won 69 percent of the white vote, and did even better with voters who lacked a college education. A Democrat who improved a few points on Obama’s 39 percent of the overall white vote in the general election would stroll into the White House.

Sanders, who has won elections only in a white, rural state, thinks his brand of bold democratic socialism can sell. He has never campaigned here, yet at Friday’s rally in Morgantown, miner after miner said they basically agreed with former mayor of Burlington more than they agreed with Clinton. Several were aware that Sanders had actually walked picket lines, something that resonated as they packed a hotel ballroom to demand that Washington fully fund UMWA pensions. When the room quieted, a man recited a prayer against greed. “Lord, we know that Satan has those corporate thieves,” he said, “and they’re still trying to rob us.” Then a singer-songwriter started in:

“It’s a long way to Wall Street from 12th and Main and the backroads of my home town

“There’s a new world order and times have changed, so they let these deals go down.”

Sanders’ campaign theory of 2016 may be that there’s a larger electorate hiding in plain sight. Over the summer, as he gained in polls, Sanders was criticized for bringing seemingly every issue back to the sediment of economics and class. Black Lives Matter activist Marissa Johnson dubbed it “class reductionism.” Clinton allies had trouble seeing how Sanders’ support could grow beyond white liberals.

But they may be missing the weight of Sanders’ cardinal argument – for greater economic fairness – and the willingness of voters to look past other issues, notably the environment and gay marriage, where they disagree.

Sanders won elections in Vermont, a white, rural and gun-owning state, as a socialist. The social issue “distractions” bemoaned by red state Democrats seemed to bounce right off his armor. (He also has taken mixed positions on gun control, supporting a ban on assault rifles, for instance, but opposing the Brady Bill). In the end, is the white guy who voted for him in Vermont any different than the white guy in West Virginia or Kentucky or Ohio who was told to blame liberals for his problems?

“What I’ve found in Vermont and around the country is that we go to people and say, ‘Look, we do have differences,'” argued Sanders. “‘I believe in gay marriage. I’m not gonna change your view if you don’t. I believe climate change is absolutely real, and some of you do not. But how many of you think we should give hundreds and billions in tax breaks to the richest one percent?'”

Conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has made a similar argument – that his party can win, with no changes to its message, if more evangelical voters are inspired to come out. What insurgents like him lack are Sanders’ strong numbers in independent polls. A national Quinnipiac survey last month found Sanders polling marginally better against leading Republican candidates than Clinton. A Marquette University last week found Sanders running just as strong as Clinton in Wisconsin, home to some of the white voters who’ve abandoned the Democrats in off years.

Something similar may be happening in West Virginia. In Morgantown, home to West Virginia University, a 62-year old activist named Andy Cockburn went to an early organizing meeting for Clinton and found only 10 other people. In July, when Morgantown hosted one of several hundred Sanders house parties, more than 100 people packed a bar basement and started organizing.

Railing against oligarchies and “the one percent” means one thing in New York City or San Francisco. It means more in West Virginia, where coal magnate Don Blankenship is standing trial and Patriot Coal Corp. is trying to spend most of a $22 million settlement for miners on its own lawyers. On Friday night, at the Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson dinner, Bill Clinton echoed his wife and condemned Patriot.

But Sanders is the candidate with the consistency on corporate greed.

“The whole feeling is that the parties have left the people,” said Doug Epling, a 73-year old businessman in Beckley with close ties to West Virginia’s elected Democrats. “We do need help from the federal government. Sanders is the only one that’s offered anything that I’ve heard.”

That bluntness has helped Sanders slow down a series of labor endorsements for Clinton. According to the New York Times, the International Association of Firefighters hit the pause button on its expected endorsement after too many local leaders blanched. On Saturday, Sanders lost the endorsement of the National Education Association, but only after a similar protest made Clinton work for it.

The UMWA has never endorsed Clinton. In 2008, it went for the doomed campaign of John Edwards, switching to Obama only after he had basically sewn up the nomination. In 2012 it made no endorsement, an avowed protest of the administration’s environmental regulations. This year, the union, with 32,354 of 71,160 members based in West Virginia, is not yet close to a decision.

“I’m not going to rule out any candidate, whether they’re Democratic or Republican,” Roberts said in an interview. “What we’re going to do is base our decision on our future here – whether we’re going to have health care, have pensions, have jobs for people in Appalachia.”

That question could vex Sanders just as much as Clinton. In his energy talking points, Sanders notes that he “introduced the gold standard for climate change legislation with Sen. Barbara Boxer to tax carbon and methane emissions,” a resume item that would be about as welcome in West Virginia as a Maryland Terrapins jersey. Asked what he would say to a coal miner who blamed EPA regulations for the loss of his job, Sanders said that he could only be straight with him.

“What we have to say is, ‘Look, through no fault of your own, you’re working in an industry which is helping to cause climate change and in fact having a negative impact on the country and world,'” said Sanders. “What the government does have is an obligation to say we’ll protect you financially as we transition away from fossil fuel. We are going to create jobs in your community, extended unemployment benefits. If you lose your job to a trade deal, you get benefits for two years. You get job training. I would take that same approach to energy jobs that are lost because of the threat of climate change.”

Nothing about Sanders’s pitch is easy, but this piece is especially rough. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has endorsed Clinton, said that Sanders’ economics-first focus makes sense in West Virginia. But he predicted that Sanders’ position on coal would be more damaging here than the socialist label after his name.

“Democrats need to remind people of what we’ve done,” Manchin said. But any candidate who told coal miners that the world had moved on from their industry, he added, would be a “non-starter.”

Similarly, Democratic State Rep. Mike Caputo, a miner and union member, said his brothers need jobs, not pity. In an interview at the UMWA office in Fairmont, he asked: “You can train a guy to be a truck driver, but what’s he going to haul? Coal miners don’t want unemployment. They want work.”

On Thursday, at his farm in Grafton, former Democratic state legislator Mike Manypenny stood firm that enthusiasm for Sanders is bigger than the enthusiasm for Obama. Manypenny, one of the many casualties of a 2014 Republican sweep, is running for Congress on the theory that the progressive politics he shares with Sanders – a living wage, the return of Glass-Steagall’s repealed restrictions on banks – is the way to break the conservative grip on voters’ imaginations.

“The problem last year was that everybody focused on getting the vote out from the historic Democratic voters,” he explained. “Those are the seniors – I don’t need to tell you that each year you lose a little more of them. This is something new. Barring anything happening in the Democratic debate, like Bernie stumbling badly, I don’t see anything changing the momentum. I think he wins.”

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