RICHMOND, Va. — Hundreds of Democrats made their way to an urban college campus on a cool and sunny Saturday to hear a simple message from former President Barack Obama: Please vote.
“Don’t be sitting on the couch!” Obama told cheering supporters at Virginia Commonwealth University, telling them that turnout in early voting and on Election Day itself is necessary for Democrats in Virginia and across the county.
Obama exhorted voters on behalf of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, who is now in a tighter-than-expected gubernatorial race in which Black voters in particular could make the difference.
But the former president plans to echo his plea in 2022 as Democrats and Republicans battle for control of Congress and statehouses nationwide.
In introducing Obama, McAuliffe – who won the governor’s race in 2013 and is seeking to win the office again – told the crowd that they have to turn out: “You all know what’s at stake.”
The Virginia governor’s race, coming less than one year into Joe Biden’s presidency, is being viewed by many as a sort of referendum of the president’s term so far, as Biden has struggled to push his ambitious domestic agenda through a Democratic-controlled by still fractious Congress.
And because Democrats’ control of Congress is so slim, the results of the 2022 midterm elections will have an outsized influence on Biden’s ability to get anything done in the second half of his term.
Supporters who gathered on the outdoor patio at the VCU library said they understand Obama’s warnings about low turnout.
“I am concerned,” said Brandy Mokhtar, 47, a chemical engineer from Richmond who described the former president’s remarks as “very motivating” and necessary.
“It’s a tight race,” she said. “We need to get everyone out to vote … Democracy is at stake.”
Grace Pullen, 20, a Virginia Tech student who drove more than 160 miles from Blacksburg, Va., to hear Obama speak, said that “what he had to say was super inspiring.”
“We can talk so much about what we want to change, but at the end of the day you have to vote,” said Pullen, who plans to vote absentee.
Katherine Lutge, 21, who drove three hours with Pullen for the rally, especially praised McAuliffe’s ticket mate Hala Ayala, who is vying to become the first woman of color to be the state’s lieutenant governor. “I had read about her but I had never seen her speak, and I thought she was very motivating,” Lutge said.
Ebony Harris, Hanna Epley, Alexandra Rogers, and Nia Walker were in line for the rally at 10:30 a.m. The 18-year-old friends attend VCU and said they were inspired to vote after hearing Obama speak.
“It was really cool to hear from a bunch of people in our government and here in Virginia and get to hear them talk,” Epley said.
Rogers said she was looking forward to voting, “because it’ll be my first time voting.” Walker described the event as effective, “especially since we are in Richmond, and the governor’s mansion is down the street.”
Obama’s appearance at a get-out-the-vote rally in downtown Richmond comes at a crucial moment for McAuliffe’s neck-and-neck race in Virginia with Republican Glenn Youngkin. Recent polling from Monmouth University show him and Youngkin in a dead heat at 46% each.
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Now, the former Virginia governor is bringing in popular Black politicians to encourage Black voters — a critical base for Democrats — to vote early or show up to the polls on Nov. 2.
Obama spent most of his speech promoting McAuliffe but reserved some time to criticize his opponent and other Republicans for extreme partisanship, as well as GOP opposition to abortion and expanded voting rights.
The former president did not cite Youngkin by name, nor did he mention the name of another prominent Republican: former president Donald Trump. He did attack “the lies and conspiracy theories” that Trump continues to advance about his 2020 loss to President Joe Biden.
At one point, Obama mocked Youngkin, a businessman making his first political race, for campaign events at grocery stores and for his support from Trump: “You can’t run ads telling me you’re a regular old hoops-playing, dishwashing, fleece-wearing guy but quietly cultivate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy.”
When the crowd booed at a reference at Youngkin, Obama re-upped a refrain he used during his days on the campaign trail: “Don’t boo – vote!”
Just a year after the convulsive 2020 president election, Obama said he understands that people are “frustrated” by politics right now, but they can’t afford to sit out any election.
“We can’t be tired,” Obama said.
Supporters said the Virginia election could set the course for contests nationwide.
“How Virginia votes will definitely set a precedent” for the 2022 midterms, said Briana Smith, 26, a rehab technician in pediatric therapy at Virginia Commonwealth University, site of the Obama rally.
Standing near the stage at the VCU library patio, Smith said that this whole election “feels very, very important,” and Black voters like her will be crucial to the outcome.
“It’s setting a standard for the upcoming elections,” she said.
VCU student Tarazha Jenkins, 20, told USA TODAY that representation and policy issues are some reasons why she attended the rally.
“I think it’s important for young folks and everybody around Richmond to get involved. And I think it’s important for our students to see people like President Obama come out and give us some advice on how to vote, when to vote, where to vote,” said the political science, African American studies and mass communications major.
While encouraging people to vote for McAuliffe, Obama on Saturday endorsed a slate of 21 Virginia legislative candidates. He also cut audio for robocalls to Black voters and others, urging them to get out to polls.
Youngkin, who is holding his own get-out-the-vote rally in Henrico, Va., has said McAuliffe has to bring in celebrities like Obama in order to generate excitement for his campaign.
“Forty year politician Terry McAuliffe and the Democratic party are running scared, so they are calling in these big name politicians to try to drum up support and enthusiasm in places where Terry McAuliffe has none,” said Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter.
In addition to the Obama rally at VCU, Vice President Kamala Harris has recorded a get-out-the vote video that will be shown in hundreds on African American churches before Election Day. Harris is the nation’s top-most current Black officeholder.
Former Georgia lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms both visited Black churches last Sunday. Abrams is scheduled to appear with McAuliffe on Sunday at a get-out-the vote rally in Charlottesville.
Worried about a governor’s election that is closer than expected, Virginia Democrats hope that appearances by Obama and other leaders will juice Black turnout during early voting as well as on Election Day itself.
Obama’s trip to Virginia on Saturday is part of his ongoing effort to increase Black voter turnout nationwide. Later in the day, he is scheduled to headline another get-out-the-vote rally in Newark, N.J., a state that is also holding a governor’s race.
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McAuliffe’s race appears close even though Virginia has trended Democratic over the past decade. Democrats have won two the last two gubernatorial races and Biden carried the state over Trump by ten percentage points a year ago.
In addition to bringing in high-powered surrogates like Obama and Harris, McAuliffe and the Democrats are trying to reach Black voters in a variety of methods. They include interviews on urban and gospel radio stations, as well as national syndicated shows.
Democrats are also conducting voter registration and early voting drives in Black neighborhoods throughout the state. One focus there is on historically Black colleges and universities like Hampton and Norfolk State.
J. Miles Coleman, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center For Politics, said Obama and the Democrats are doing what they have to do. He cited Obama’s comment that Virginia is a “blue state” only “when Democrats turn out.” especially Black voters.
“If McAuliffe loses,” Coleman said, “weak Black turnout is going to be a main reason why.”