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'Our Democracy Is At Stake,' Obama Says Of Virginia Race For Governor

Former President Obama speaks during a campaign rally for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam in Richmond, Va.
Jim Watson
AFP/Getty Images
Former President Obama speaks during a campaign rally for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam in Richmond, Va.

Former President Obama returned to the campaign trail for the first time since leaving office Thursday campaigning for the Democratic candidates for governor in New Jersey and Virginia.

He put the Virginia race, where he was campaigning for Ralph Northam, in the starkest terms.

"We need you to take this seriously, because our democracy is at stake," Obama told a crowd of 7,500 at a packed convention center, "and it's at stake right here in Virginia."

The former president bemoaned the divisive state of politics — and implored Democrats to send a message with their votes in three weeks in the Virginia governor's race.

At the Richmond, Va., rally — with 2008 and 2012-like chants of "yes, we can" — Obama never directly mentioned President Trump by name or, for that matter, Northam's opponent, GOP nominee Ed Gillespie. But it was clear he was taking aim at how Trump has presented himself in public life and how Gillespie has campaigned.

"Folks don't feel good right now about what they see," Obama said. "They don't feel as if our public life reflects our best. Instead of our politics reflecting our values, we've got politics infecting our communities. Instead of looking for ways to work together and get things done in a practical way, we've got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry, to demonize folks who have different ideas to get the base all riled up because it provides a short-term tactical advantage."

Obama cast the upcoming race in terms of choosing between progress and more division.

"If you have to win a campaign by dividing people," Obama said, "you're not going to be able to govern them. You won't be able to unite them later if that's how you start."

The former president accused Gillespie of using fear and painted him as a Trump-style Republican, alluding to his ads that have run warning of the dangers of MS13 gang and illegal immigration.

"Ralph's opponent is playing from that same old playbook," Obama said, warning that "if you scare enough voters, you might just score enough votes to win an election."

He called such tactics "cynical" and "corrosive."

Trump has yet to campaign for Gillespie in this state Hillary Clinton won in 2016. (Obama won it twice). Trump has, however, tweeted his support for Gillespie and alleged that Northam "is fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities."

Vice President Pence campaigned for Gillespie last weekend in the southwest corner of the state, a reliably red area that could be crucial if turnout there is high.

In the wake of violence earlier this year in Charlottesville between white nationalists and counter protesters, Obama also waded into the debate over whether to keep Confederate statues that pepper the former Confederate capital.

The first black president, whose father was Kenyan but whose mother was white, noted the irony that he could trace his ancestry to Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, who was probably "spinning in his grave!"

Obama said any idea Northam was trying to "erase Virginia's history" by backing the removal of Confederate monuments as a "distraction."

But the biggest warning note Obama sounded was one against complacency. He acknowledged that in off-year elections, "Y'all get a little sleepy," and he also told younger voters that, "I think it's great that you hashtag and meme, but I need you to vote."

Obama's appearance in Richmond wasn't by accident, either. Democrats are worried about African-American turnout and hope the former president can spur voters to the polls.

Some Democratic operatives worry Northam is underwhelming as a candidate, and Obama tried to testify to Northam's credentials. He noted that he's a pediatric neurologist and an Army doctor, who didn't see wounded warriors "as Democrats or Republicans" when he was treating them.

"At a time when so many of us can be so cynical about government and public service, to have somebody step up who you can trust and who just wants to do right by the people of Virginia, that's worth something," the former president said.

Obama also campaigned Thursday in New Jersey, where 2017's other governor's race is happening. But Democrats feel much better about their nominee Phil Murphy in that contest, who is steadily leading Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in public polling.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.