Appearing alongside Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee for governor, and a host of other candidates and officials, Obama provided a jolt of adrenaline for a party concerned with mustering voter turnout as the Nov. 2 election draws near.
Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin, a former private-equity executive, has energized his own party’s base and drawn even with McAuliffe in polls. On Saturday, Youngkin kicked off a 10-day, 50-stop tour that will take him across the state by bus and, in the frenzy before Election Day, by plane.
He got rolling Saturday after a morning rally in Great Falls, then headed for the suburban battleground counties around Richmond. He was scheduled to wrap up Saturday campaigning with an evening rally at a grocery store in the Richmond area where he’d appeared earlier in the campaign to pitch his plan to eliminate the state’s grocery tax.
“Virginia’s promise hangs in the balance as we head into the last 10 days,” Youngkin told an enthusiastic crowd of many hundreds that the campaign estimated at 2,000. “This moment is for us. This is part of Virginia’s heritage. It is our birthright. It’s the sprit of Virginia coming alive. Our nation’s history rests in Virginia’s history and, friends, our nation’s future rests in Virginia’s present.”
While former president Donald Trump has endorsed Youngkin several times and called into a rally on his behalf earlier this month, Youngkin has ducked questions in recent days about whether he would like Trump to join him on the trail. Youngkin has been cautious about invoking Trump as he attempts to appeal to suburban moderates.
Also on the ballot in Virginia are lieutenant governor, attorney general and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates. Democrats are defending a 55-45 advantage in the House, which has enabled them in just two years to enact a sweeping set of changes from abolishing the death penalty to legalizing marijuana and expanding voting access.
But with Trump no longer in the White House to juice Democratic vote totals, this year’s election will test whether Virginia’s new blue complexion can last and will serve as a political bellwether for next year’s midterm congressional elections nationwide.
Obama’s visit on Saturday did more than just spell out the stakes for national Democrats, which will be emphasized again on Tuesday when President Biden campaigns with McAuliffe in Arlington. Obama also sketched out the sweeping narrative of the race that Virginia Democrats need to sell to their voters over the next 10 days.
Wearing an open-collared white button-down shirt and gray slacks, Obama first touted McAuliffe’s record as governor from 2014 to 2018, citing his creation of jobs, investment in public education and laying the groundwork for expanding Medicaid. “I know he will make you proud as governor because he’s already done it,” Obama said.
The work of being governor, especially in a pandemic, is “too important to just leave to chance,” Obama said. With the economy recovering and with schools open again, he said, “We’ve got a choice. We can go backwards, we can plunge right back into the misguided policies and the divisiveness and the negligence that made this pandemic so much worse than it ever had to be, or we can build an economy that works for everybody, not just a few.”
He said that allowing Republicans to return to power in Virginia would lead to restrictions on abortion access and a loosening of gun laws. And he questioned their efforts to tighten voting requirements.
“You have to ask yourself, why is it that Republicans don’t want you to vote?” he said. “What is it they’re so afraid of? If they think they have better ideas, why don’t they just go make the case?”
Instead, Obama said, Republicans are “trying to rig elections … And when that doesn’t work, you start fabricating lies and conspiracy theories about the last election, the one you didn’t win. That’s not how democracy’s supposed to work.” Though he didn’t mention Trump or Youngkin by name, Obama said McAuliffe’s opponent was facilitating election lies. But he scolded audience members when they booed at that.
“Don’t boo, vote!” he shouted. “Booing doesn’t do nothing! Booing might make you feel better but it’s not going to get Terry elected.”
Youngkin, for his part, acknowledged the legitimacy of Biden’s election once he won his party’s nomination for governor, after having dodged the question during the run-up to the Republican nominating convention. He has made “election integrity” a centerpiece of his campaign and called for audits of Virginia voting machines — which are already audited — but has said he trusts that the state’s balloting is legitimate.
Obama also slammed the Republican for fanning “phony trumped-up culture wars” by stoking conservative anger over what’s taught in public schools. Youngkin regularly whips up Republican crowds by condemning critical race theory, an academic approach to teaching racial history that is not actually mentioned in the state’s school curriculum, and has suggested, without evidence, that allies of Democratic mega donor George Soros have “inserted” political operatives on school boards.
“So we’re at a turning point right now,” Obama said, “both here in America and around the world. Because there’s a mood out there. We see it. There’s a politics of meanness and division and conflict. Of tribalism and cynicism. And that’s one path. But the good news is there’s another path, where we pull together . . . And that’s the choice we face.”
Obama ended about 35 minutes of remarks by stoking up the crowd to go vote, urging them not to be tired when there’s still work to do and invoking the legacy of women’s suffragists and civil rights leaders.
The ticketed audience — limited in size for security reasons — had responded politely to a full slate of Democratic speakers before Obama, from McAuliffe to Gov. Ralph Northam and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, but the former president drove them to a fever pitch. Every speaker invoked his name as a way to get a rowdy cheer.
“Today we’re out for Obama,” said Tracey James, 56, a chemist from Henrico, as she arrived at the event through a security checkpoint. “We need to get more people out here to vote. I’m worried. It’s a close race.”