OAK HILL, W.Va. – “Are you a good Confederate or a damn Yankee?”
The question came mere seconds after U.S. Senate candidate Tom Willis took the floor at a rural West Virginia Shoney’s. It was a tough one, and the questioner, a woman with long gray hair, seemed to know it, as she sat awaiting her answer.
Willis, a Special Forces officer in the West Virginia National Guard, now running for Senate as a Republican, may be a novice politician, but he’s savvy enough to know better than to pick sides in a war that ended more than a century ago. He also knows his West Virginia history. The state came into being in the first place by seceding from the Commonwealth of Virginia due to residents’ Union sympathies.
For a second, he appeared to be cornered. He’d studied the opioid crisis, energy policy, immigration, and jobs. Somehow the Civil War hadn’t come up.
But after four months on the trail, Willis, who is good looking and athletic, and wears his graying hair cropped short, has developed a seasoned politician’s knack for slipping out of a trap. “I was born on the right side of the Mason Dixon,” he said with a smile — offering an answer that left plenty of room for interpretation. (He was born in Virginia.) In other words, a politician’s answer. While his audience pondered his response, Willis quickly dove into his stump speech.
It was a cold, gray day in April, and only a handful of Fayette County Republicans had shown up for what was already Willis’ second campaign speech of the day. As he always did, he touched on the state’s loss of jobs and the opioid crisis. On a personal note, he talked about his own quest to serve, how he lost his first wife to cancer and how his son later survived the disease.
“I understand what it is like to suffer,” he said to nods from the group. “We have problems, but the problems can be solved if we work together.”
After Willis finished, an older man wearing a maroon Virginia Tech shirt and jeans, his arm in a gray sling, stood up and saluted him. A former Army Ranger, the man wouldn’t let the Civil War question go.
“Are you a good Confederate or a damn Yankee?”
“Martinsville, Virginia, is rebel country,” Willis said. “You heard of it? We’ve got a speedway.”
The answer brought a smile to the man’s face. Then a nod of the head. A connection made even as Willis once again deftly sidestepped the issue.
Maybe he could win this thing after all…
Year of the veteran?
A career in the military has long been seen as a stepping stone to elective office, but the 2018 midterms are shaping up to be a special moment for veterans storming the political battlespace.
Serving in the military is the “single best-testing trait” for congressional candidates, and voters from both parties’ view those who served in a positive light, according to a recent poll conducted by a veteran’s super PAC.
With Honor, a “cross-partisan” PAC helping veterans get elected to Congress, surveyed 753 likely voters nationwide, and the results suggest that a background in the armed forces makes candidates like Willis uniquely suited for today’s hyperpartisan political environment. Nearly a third of voters across the political spectrum say they are willing to cross party lines to vote for a veteran. Moreover, former service members are viewed as mission-oriented coalition builders who can work across the aisle.
As Willis is discovering, even a veteran can find it hard to break through, though — especially in a crowded field. On the Republican side, six candidates have been jockeying for the chance to replace Democrat Joe Manchin, who is running for his second full term. To the extent that the media has taken note of the race, most of the attention has been focused on the campaign of Don Blankenship, the former coal company CEO who recently emerged from a prison stint in connection with the 2010 disaster at a mine he operated that left 29 miners dead.
In a normal election year, a backstory like that would be seen as disqualifying. Not this year. In a recent poll, Blankenship drew 12 percent of likely voters to just 3 percent who picked Willis. Frontrunners State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins came in at 24 percent and 20 percent respectively. With the primary just a week away, however, 39 percent of GOP voters were undecided — a thin sliver of hope for Willis.
Meanwhile, Willis says his own internal polling has him tied for third place with Morrisey. And voters who get to hear about his veteran status seem to be responding. Among them, he wins with 36 percent of the vote, according to internal polling data.
“I just look at it as a military operation to win hearts and minds,” Willis says.
In this respect, it turns out, Willis’s special forces training translates well to the campaign trail. Knowing how to quickly build rapport, forge connections, broker deals and appeal to various constituencies may be as important to any counterinsurgency operation — arguably more so — than engaging the enemy. And during a few days Task & Purpose spent embedded on the campaign trail with Willis, it was clear that such skills constituted a secret weapon of sorts.
“Nobody in the military can build rapport better,” Willis said of the Special Forces. “That’s what we do for our country under difficult circumstances. Politics is one handshake at a time.”
That’s not the only way that the campaign trail can sometimes resemble a deployment. The mornings are early. The nights are late. The food is unhealthy. And there remains, whatever comes, a singular focus on the mission.
“There is work to do,” Willis said over and over again. “People are suffering. People are unemployed. To be part of the solution, you have a moral responsibility to step up.”
Veteran. Lawyer. Businessman.
Willis’s campaign started in January, two months after he left active duty. He was seven years from retirement, but he said he felt called to elective office.
“The reason I’m running is to serve God by serving my fellow man,” he told me. “I got to a point in my life where I’m not as young as I used to be. But how can I best serve my fellow man? I can serve better by moving from the physical battle to the ideological battle.”
Meanwhile, although West Virginia has one of the biggest veteran populations in the country, there is currently no veteran serving in its Congressional delegation.
“That’s an anomaly we plan to correct,” Willis said.
A Special Forces Distinguished Honor Graduate, Willis joined the West Virginia National Guard in 2000, starting out in the enlisted ranks and eventually becoming executive officer of a U.S. Army Special Forces Battalion. He deployed to Afghanistan, Macedonia, Peru and Bahrain. He often served as a liaison, working closely with the Peruvian military on counter-narcotics operations and with the Kuwaiti military fighting ISIS.
Before enlisting, Willis — a graduate of the University of Virginia and Georgetown Law School — clerked for a federal judge at the U.S. Tax Court and spent some time working as a tax attorney. Now a real estate developer, he is the co-owner of the Glen Ferris Inn on the banks of the Kanawha River in Fayette County.
Willis has consciously built his campaign less on his policy ideas, which tend to follow the typical conservative program, than on his biography. On his campaign website, his varied roles (“Veteran, Businessman, Father”) are featured prominently, and one has to dig a little to learn his stances on the issues. Interestingly, the Republican party does not appear to be mentioned at all, although Willis does compare himself to President Donald Trump (“a fellow outsider”) and promise to be “the biggest supporter of the President’s agenda to grow our economy, keep taxes low, and restore law and order to our immigration system.”
He bills himself as a soldier first and foremost, driven to serve by a sense of duty. “You look around and see things and they’re not right,” he said. “We have some major needs in our country and it is going to take some people with integrity.”
‘I think he’ll win’
Willis dresses like a lawyer these days. Dark suit. Vest. Leather shoes. Power tie. Riding in his black Jeep Cherokee one morning, with his campaign manager, Jim Shaffer, riding shotgun, he joked that it was his new uniform.
Headed for their first campaign stop of the day, a senior center near Charleston, the men called campaign workers, drafted talking points and sometimes rode in silence. XM’s Chill satellite radio station — a “relaxing mix of down-tempo EDM and rock” — provided the soundtrack as Willis weaved through the hills.
West Virginia is the third poorest state in the union, and its challenges seemed to be etched in its landscape. Riding with Willis between campaign stops, it was impossible to miss the crumbling houses, the potted roads and boarded up storefronts. But just as one began to find West Virginia’s plight overwhelming, the Cherokee rounded a bend and cruised past a massive gorge carved by a majestic river.
Willis is aware of the struggles his state faces. At several stops, he mentioned its “brain drain,” the tendency of residents to leave in search of better economic opportunities. The state has experienced a population decline for several years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Despite a pro-labor tradition that goes back decades, the basis for a successful teacher’s strike that concluded in March, West Virginia is undoubtedly Trump country. The President won the state by 42 points in the 2016 election. Willis supports Trump because he says the administration has been good to West Virginia and coal, but his support isn’t unconditional.
“I only gave a blank check to the people of West Virginia when I raised my right hand to join the National Guard,” he said. “And I’ll give the people a blank check as a statesman.”
He’ll oppose any policies that hurt West Virginia, he insisted.
Willis pulled his SUV into the parking lot of the Hometown Senior Center, a squat white building near some railroad tracks, shortly before the day’s event was set to begin — a forum where local voters could meet candidates for local, state and national office. Inside, it resembled a living room adorned with a fireplace and red, white and blue decorations. Several round tables had been set up in the dining area. The smell of chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes and green beans wafted into the room from the kitchen.
Two of Willis’ opponents and a few Congressional hopefuls had shown up, as well as some down-ballot candidates. As for voters, they were outnumbered by political hopefuls two to one. The host began with a request to keep speeches to five minutes and to refrain from negative comments about political rivals.
Candidates for the U.S. Senate race were up first. Copley, a bald man with a neatly trimmed beard, took the floor. He is best known for the viral video of him challenging Hillary Clinton about coal jobs at a roundtable during the 2016 presidential campaign, and he used his time to tell that story, ending with an appeal for support.
“I’m not a politician,” Copley emphasized. “I’m a West Virginian.”
Meanwhile, Willis was observing the room. He picked out an African-American woman and an older man in the back as the influencers to focus on when the time came. He started his speech talking about how the partners at Baker & McKenzie, the major law firm he’d worked at, reacted to his choice to join the West Virginia National Guard. His colleagues didn’t understand why he wanted to forgo a career as a tax attorney to try and earn the Special Forces tab, he said, and only one seemed to share the need to serve something bigger than themselves.
The audience watched him closely, fixing their eyes on his smile and hands, which weaved through the air like an orchestra conductor’s.
Willis’s speech focused mostly on his service overseas, with a special emphasis on fighting ISIS, the Taliban and narco-terrorists. But to those gathered in the center, the wars felt far away. Willis knew it. So, he ended his by talking about with the Glen Ferris Inn, his historic hotel, and a state landmark.
“Maybe some of you guys have come in and tried our peanut butter pie?” Willis asked, eliciting nods from the sparse crowd and bringing home his local bona fides.
With only a minutes left, Willis hit the issues, letting voters know he was pro-life and pro-Second Amendment, and pledging to keep the promise of Social Security and Medicare.
“My name is Tom Willis and I hope you vote for me on May 8,” he said before taking a seat.
Navy veteran turned truck driver Jack Newbrough was next.
Instead of a suit jacket, Newbrough sported a sweatshirt, along with work boots, a USS West Virginia baseball cap and a concealed sidearm, which he showed the audience mid-speech while talking about how he personified the Second Amendment. Ignoring the ground rules, he immediately launched into an attack on Morissey, the front-runner.
Outside after his speech, Newbrough smoked while he waited for the candidates in the state races to finish. He knew his chances to win were slim, but he relished the spoiler role. He was determined to keep Morrisey out of office.
“I think Tom is going to win,” Newbrough said between drags. “To me, it’s common sense. He’s like me. He says it like it is.”
Inside, lunch was served. Willis had another campaign stop, but before ducking out, he made a point to meet with the two influencers in the room. A handshake. A smile.
Schaffer hung back, his eyes on his cell phone. The campaign was waiting for confirmation on several endorsements from national veteran PACs. Willis would get six.
“Tom is genuine,” Shaffer, a veteran of several statewide campaigns, told me when asked why he’d signed up with Willis. “No slickness. No political speak.”
On the way to the next stop, Willis got a call from his wife, Sara. She was excited to tell him about a volunteer who has flooded the eastern panhandle of the state with campaign signs.
“Everywhere they turned there was a sign for you,” she said excitedly on speakerphone.
Willis, in the passenger seat, smiled. His shoulders relaxed.
“It’s amazing the impact one dedicated volunteer can make,” he said.
It was impossible to miss the 293-foot gold dome of West Virginia’s State Capitol as Willis cruised downtown looking for a local TV station.
It was Tuesday, and his day is packed with interviews, a ribbon cutting for the opening of his second campaign office at the Glen Ferris Inn, and the announcement of his jobs program.
The TV interview would be with Mark Curtis, host of “Inside West Virginia Politics.” Willis was upbeat. “I think it is going to come down to a couple hundred votes,” he was saying. “30,000 votes probably wins the race.” The career politicians are fading, he added. “I’m the only one moving up fast. Morrisey is falling fast, and the two leaders have plateaued. If I had four more months, I’d win by ten points.”
Curtis, a veteran political reporter, met Willis at the station’s door. In the studio, the show’s graphic filled the monitor behind the small stage. As they waited for the signal to begin, Curtis went over the format.
“I don’t do interviews,” he said. “I do conversations.”
He paused before they started recording.
“This is a chance for you to introduce yourself to a lot of people who don’t know who you are,” Curtis said.
The five-minute interview went by fast. Willis looked relaxed, at ease in front of the cameras. It’s a skill he was still mastering. He used to look down while he thought of an answer, he’d admitted, breaking eye contact with the interviewer and appearing unsure. Tuesday, Willis beamed at Curtis and the cameras.
“You impressed a lot of people at the debate,” Curtis said. “Why run for Senate?”
It’s a question Willis gets a lot. To the political elite, Willis was cutting the line by skipping a run for state office and going for a Senate seat. But he wasn’t sure how much good he could do in the state legislature or on a school board.
“This is the one I’m best qualified for,” he told Curtis. “There is no other candidate in West Virginia that has the legal pedigree, the national security pedigree.”
Curtis has covered the race from the start. “The more people hear him, the more people like him,” Curtis told Task & Purpose. “He has enough time to be a factor.”
Curtis said Willis fits the trend of political novices willing to reject political norms and run on their own terms. “People dislike politicians,” he explained. “People like a longshot.”
Even as the polls have Willis gaining only single digit support — not even enough to qualify for a recent Fox News debate — he still predicts victory on May 8.
“Remember Trump lost badly in all the polls too,” Willis said with a smile. “I don’t trust the polls for a minute. It’s going to be a photo finish.”