RICHMOND, VA — Former President Barack Obama exhorted Virginians to support Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s candidacy for governor, warning of the dire consequences for the state and the country if he were to lose.
“We’re at a turning point right now both here and in America and around the world. There's a mood out there, we see it: a politics of meanness,” Obama told an estimated crowd of around 2,000 people on a sun-dappled afternoon at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Obama presented the choice for Virginians as between McAuliffe, who he said would keep moving the state forward, and Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, who he said has been “encouraging the lies and conspiracy theories that we’ve had to live through all this time,” referring to the ongoing attempt by former President Donald Trump to falsely claim that the 2020 election was illegitimate.
Obama also said Youngkin has attempted to “quietly cultivate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy.”
Obama mentioned a recent campaign event hosted by grassroots Republicans in support of Youngkin, where attendees recited the Pledge of Allegiance to an American flag that they said was carried in D.C. on Jan. 6, the day of the violent assault by Trump supporters on the U.S. Capitol.
“When you don't separate yourselves from that, when you don't think that's a problem, that's a problem,” Obama said.
Youngkin called that event “weird and wrong,” but Obama and other Democrats brought up Youngkin’s push for “election integrity” — a phrase used often as a placeholder for disproven claims about the 2020 election — and his call to audit voting machines, which already takes place.
“Either he actually believes in the same conspiracy theories ... or he’s willing to go along with it, to say or do anything to get elected,” Obama said. “And maybe that’s worse, because that says something about character ... There’s some things that are more important than getting elected, and maybe American democracy is one of those things.”
Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter told Yahoo News that the Republican candidate “is a political outsider that does things differently and focuses on the issues that are affecting Virginia voters.”
Obama spoke at Virginia Commonwealth University here in the capital city of the commonwealth, a location chosen to reach out to two voting blocs that skew most reliably Democratic, but who also have voted in lower percentages than other groups in some recent elections: young voters and Black voters. Richmond is home to one of the biggest concentrations of Black voters in the state, along with portions of Norfolk and areas of Northern Virginia.
Obama’s visit was also meant to focus Virginia voters on the national context of the governor’s race, framing it through the lens of issues beyond the state. McAuliffe is talking about abortion to voters in Northern Virginia, an issue that has national stakes with the looming decision at the Supreme Court next year in a Mississippi case that could repeal Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in every state.
But the even wider lens is the attempt by former President Trump to restore himself to legitimacy despite his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, where he spoke to a crowd near the White House, repeated his false claims about the 2020 election and told them to march to the U.S. Capitol and “fight like hell.”
Trump’s supporters then waged a violent assault on the Capitol in an attempt to stop the 2020 election results from being certified, with some chanting that they intended to kill members of Congress and even Trump’s vice president, Republican Mike Pence.
“It was a violent attack to disenfranchise the votes of 80 million people. Folks, they didn’t want your votes to count ... they wanted to erase your vote,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told the crowd.
“Can’t we have a small ‘d’ democracy and can everyday people participate? That is what’s at stake,” Kaine said.
Trump has portrayed what happened on Jan. 6 as a good thing. There are some signs that a few Republican leaders want the direction to choose a different standard-bearer in the 2024 presidential election, but that resistance is limited at this point, and Trump’s narrative enjoys the support of the right-wing media.
It was this larger context that Obama sought to crystallize for those in the audience at VCU, and those who would consume his speech in sound bites on social media.
“Our democracy is what makes America great. It’s what makes us the shining city on the hill, this extraordinary experiment in self-government. Protecting and preserving that shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It didn’t used to be,” he said.
The move to nationalize the race in Virginia mirrors what Democrats did in California ahead of the Sept. 14 recall election, which Gov. Gavin Newsom won decisively. Democrats were concerned about Newsom’s fate over the summer but were able to stabilize the race once they brought in household names that raised awareness about the campaign among less engaged members of their voter base and talked about the contest in the context of national politics.
Like Newsom, McAuliffe — who was Virginia’s governor from 2014 to 2018 and was limited to one consecutive term by the commonwealth’s constitution — is seeking to beat back a motivated Republican grassroots that is hungry for a victory in a state that was won decisively by Joe Biden in 2020. Biden will campaign with McAuliffe in Arlington on Tuesday.
But Virginia is not California. Biden won Virginia by 10 points in 2020. He won California by nearly 30. And there is a Black female running as a third-party candidate in Virginia, Princess Blanding, who has received only about 1 percent in polling, but in a close race, that could be significant.
Jontae Burton, a 19-year-old George Washington University freshman who went to high school in Richmond, attended the rally wearing a T-shirt that bore a copy of Kehinde Wiley’s painting of Obama that is the official National Portrait Gallery presidential painting. Burton told Yahoo News that voting was “essential” to him and that the 2016 election was a “turning point” for him.
“I’ve seen what public officials are capable of,” he said, citing what he said Trump was “able to do negatively to our country.”
But Burton said that many people his age “still don’t understand what government does.”
Lamar Corbin, an 18-year-old VCU freshman, said he came to the rally to see Obama but hadn’t paid much attention to the governor’s campaign.
“I haven’t heard much about [McAuliffe],” Corbin told Yahoo News. “Most of my friends aren’t paying attention. Midterms are coming up.”
Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison expressed confidence Saturday before the Obama event that his party had not waited too long to ring the alarm about the Virginia contest.
“We know this: there are more Democrats here. If we get the Democrats to turn out we win,” Harrison said. “I feel pretty certain that Terry McAuliffe is going to win this race.”
Harrison called Youngkin a “used car salesman.”
“He’s trying to make people feel good but we know he’s selling the junk,” he said.
It was an overconfidence born of a generation of Democratic success in Virginia, however, that created the general apathy among large swaths of the Democratic base, along with an exhaustion from the Trump era and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know a lot of people are tired of politics right now ... I understand some of you are just plain tired, because this has been hard,” Obama said. “But here’s the thing. We can’t afford to be tired, because of these young people right here.”
And Youngkin has proven to be a talented political performer, ably keeping the Trump base excited while conveying an image of moderation and country club Republicanism that has won back some of the voters and business interests who were turned off by the former president’s antics.
McAuliffe referred to Youngkin as “Donald Trump in khakis.”
“This election is going to be close,” Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., told the crowd.
Porter, the Youngkin campaign spokeswoman, said that the Obama appearance was a sign of “desperation” by Democrats because the Republican candidate is surging.
“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,” Porter told Yahoo News.
And if Youngkin wins, it will embolden segments of the GOP that believe there’s a way to fuse Trump supporters with moderate Republicans. Youngkin has tapped into the anger of suburban parents that began during the pandemic and has transferred over to concerns about how schools teach about racism and sexuality, in ways that are often exaggerated and distorted but that nonetheless have proven to be politically potent.
If Youngkin loses, the GOP may have to reassess the elements of the Virginia strategy, but it seems it has tapped into something significant no matter what.
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