ATLANTA — A crowd of several thousand at a rally here roared its affection for two history-making political figures Friday as former president Barack Obama implored Georgians to show up on Tuesday to help Stacey Abrams become the next governor of Georgia.
Abrams, 44, who if elected would be the nation’s first black female governor, is tied in the polls with Republican Brian Kemp in one of the most-watched contests of the midterm elections.
“She is the most experienced, the most qualified candidate in this race,” said Obama, who served two terms as the country’s first African American president, a day after President Trump said that Abrams is “not qualified” to be governor.
Trump is scheduled to visit Georgia on Sunday to stump for Kemp.
Obama, in a speech that ran nearly 45 minutes, criticized both Trump and Kemp, who also is Georgia’s secretary of state and who has come under fire for policies and practices that have blocked or removed hundreds of thousands of people, many of them minorities, from the voting rolls during the past few years.
On Friday, a federal judge ruled that Kemp’s office must immediately stop using the “exact match” rule that put more than 50,000 would-be voters on hold because of minor discrepancies between their registration applications and other official records. Early voting in Georgia ended Friday.
“If you are aspiring to a higher office in which you pledge to look out for the people of your state, then how can you actively try to prevent the citizens of your state from exercising their most basic right?” Obama said.
Abrams and other activists have also criticized Kemp for continuing in his job as the state’s top elections official while running for governor. Kemp has said that he is trying to protect the election system against fraud.
Obama also chided Kemp for withdrawing from a debate because it would have conflicted with Trump’s visit. Kemp and Abrams were scheduled to square off for a second time Sunday at 5 p.m. Earlier this week ,Trump announced he would hold a rally in Macon, about 90 minutes southeast of Atlanta, on Sunday at 4 p.m. Atlanta’s Channel 2, the debate sponsor, offered several options to reschedule the debate, but the campaigns could not agree on a new date and time.
“I saw her opponent backed out of that debate. He’s going to go to a rally instead,” Obama said. “He can’t do both? What’s he afraid of? He’s afraid of Stacey, I guess.”
Obama also continued his criticism of Trump and Republican congressional leaders for using scare tactics and “lies” to rile up their base.
"Leaders at the highest levels of public office ... repeatedly, baldly, shamelessly lie – just make stuff up, just say things they know are not true.”
“Lies!” the crowd chanted each time Obama paused between adverbs.
He also said voters should be wary of Republicans' newfound support for protecting preexisting conditions, a key component of the Affordable Care Act, which they have repeatedly vowed to and tried to repeal.
“I mean, they’ve voted dozens of times to try to get rid of protections for preexisting conditions. Last year they fell one vote short,” Obama said. “If they win Tuesday, they will be coming after health care again. … But a Democratic Congress will not let that happen.” He also noted that Abrams has vowed to work to bring Medicaid expansion to Georgia, something that Kemp said would be too costly. He, too, has said he would protect preexisting conditions but has not specified how.
Obama also knocked Trump for a plan to send troops to the border in response to the caravan of migrants traveling up from Central America. “They’re sending them down there for a political stunt. … Our military deserves better than that. That’s not patriotism.”
The former president leveled similar criticisms against his successor at a rally for Florida Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum. He would become the Sunshine State’s first black governor if he beats Republican Ron DeSantis on Tuesday. Trump campaigned earlier this week in Florida for DeSantis, a former congressman, who has trailed Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, in the polls.
Abrams, who holds a law degree from Yale and is the former Democratic leader of the Georgia state house, told the crowd that in the final few days of the campaign, she needed them to help her spread her message to people who haven’t yet voted. “We are ready to cover a half million Georgians who don’t have health insurance. We are ready to protect preexisting conditions,” she said.
After introducing Obama, Abrams sat behind him on a stage filled with supporters standing in front of a giant projected sign that read, “Our chance. Our choice.” It was the second time in as many days that she’d shared the spotlight with a national celebrity. On Thursday, media mogul Oprah Winfrey was in suburban Atlanta to host two town halls with Abrams. She then went canvassing for Abrams, shocking and delighting unsuspecting people who answered their doors to find the longtime talk show queen standing on their steps.
Friday’s rally was held at Morehouse College, one of the country’s most prestigious historically black institutions. Martin Luther King Jr. was an alumnus, as are film director Spike Lee and Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta.
The school’s Forbes Arena, which holds 6,000, was filled to the rafters, and people stood shoulder to shoulder in the floor space in front of the stage. The event at times felt like a pep rally, with people in the stands spontaneous chanting “A-brams! A-brams!” or doing crowd waves and dancing along to R&B and hip-hop music. Speakers included former attorney general Eric Holder as well as Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bordeaux, who are running competitive races against Republican incumbents in adjacent congressional districts in suburban Atlanta. The crowd took turns cheering candidates for Congress and the state legislature and calling out to several celebrities who showed up for the event, including actor Chris Tucker, rapper Two Chainz and Kandi Burruss of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.”
Christine Boyd, wearing a knit cap with Obama's name in glittery letters, came to the rally with her son, Keith Russell. Boyd said she'd already voted early for Abrams; Russell said he always looks forward to going to vote on Election Day.
Both said they had been energized by the rally and would work harder to encourage others to vote.
“I like the energy, I like the enthusiasm, and I like that we will be a part of history,” Boyd said. As for people who didn’t attend the rally and didn’t get that boost, she said: “I think it’s word of mouth. I think if all of us go home, talk to our neighbors, talk to our friends, talk to our family — it’s going to take that kind of grass-roots effort in order to push her over the top. But we can do it.”
Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who represents Atlanta in Congress, brought a sense of history to the occasion, reminding the crowd that before African Americans got the right to vote, black lawyers, doctors and teachers in the South were told they couldn’t read or write well enough to register to vote. “We are not going back. We have come too far! We are going forward!”
“Vote! Vote! Vote!” the crowd chanted.
“It is in our hands! It is in our hands to make Stacey Abrams the next governor of the state of Georgia,” Lewis thundered. “You can do it! You can do it! We must do it!”