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 factious Congress.
And because the 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 hours before the Richmond event said they understand the warnings about low turnout.
“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.
Jenkins said that voting is also important because: “I want for our voices to be heard and I think that’s the main reason why I vote. I want our issues to matter.”
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.
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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.
Political analysts said increased Black turnout could put McAuliffe over the top as he seeks to become governor for a second time. McAuliffe won the Virginia race in 2013 with the help of Black voters.
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The race appears close even though Virginia has trended Democratic over the past decade. Democrats have won two the last two gubernatorial races and President Joe Biden carried the state over Donald Trump by ten percentage points a year ago.
Democratic political analyst James Carville told MSNBC on Thursday he is “scared to death” over the Virginia governor’s race, and “other Democrats should be.”
Democratic national party chairman Jaime Harrison, who attended the Richmond rally, said Democrats have an essential task in Virginia in the days ahead: “I want to make sure we get our vote out.”
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.