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Barack Obama hits campaign trail in bellwether Virginia race as Democrats try to galvanize Black voters

·12 min read
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ALEXANDRIA, Va. – As Democrats worry about a close contest in the Virginia governor's race, candidate Terry McAuliffe is turning to a popular former president, other political leaders and massive outreach programs to encourage turnout from a key constituency: Black voters.

On Saturday, former President Barack Obama headlined a rally at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The visit of the country's first Black president could help energize Black voters, who helped deliver victory for McAuliffe in his early bid for governor in 2013.

"Don't be sitting on the couch!" Obama told cheering supporters, telling them that turnout in early voting and on Election Day itself is necessary for Democrats in Virginia and across the county.

On Sunday, thousands of worshipers at Black churches all over Virginia will see a video featuring Kamala Harris, the first Black woman and first Indian American vice president.

The venues are different, but the Obama and Harris messages to Black voters are the same: You need to get out and vote if Democrats are to win the governor's race in Virginia – not to mention key congressional races throughout the nation in 2022, which will determine control of Congress and the success or failure of the second half of Joe Biden's presidency.

"Virginia, you have a lot of responsibility this year," Obama said in a video previewing his appearance in Richmond. "Not only are you choosing your next governor, but you’re also making a statement about what direction we’re headed in as a country."

More: Terry McAuliffe vs. Glenn Youngkin: Virginia governor's race tests Biden, Democrats before 2022

More: Abortion, Donald Trump and COVID-19: Virginia governor's race emerges as a bellwether

As McAuliffe battles Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin in a closer-than-expected race in Virginia, the Democratic campaign is engaged in a massive effort to amp up turnout among Black voters as well as other progressives.

Political scientists note that McAuliffe must do more than the same campaigning he did during his first successful run for the governor's office in 2013, when he won 90% of the Black vote.

Former President Barack Obama campaigns for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe at a campaign rally in Richmond, Virginia.
Former President Barack Obama campaigns for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe at a campaign rally in Richmond, Virginia.

"There's a number of years that have passed since Terry McAuliffe was the governor, and I think the political climate is different, especially with the movements towards social justice, Black Lives Matter," said Jatia Wrighten, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Wrighten points out that McAuliffe won the governorship eight years ago on the coattails of Obama's presidential reelection in 2012.

“The Black community was very much still excited about (Obama's) second-term win. And then you have McAuliffe coming in campaigning at the end of that year and then 2013. In many ways, I think McAuliffe didn't have to work very hard to gain the Black vote,” Wrighten said. “A lot of Black voters were still very activated in terms of voting and paying attention to elections.”

In this Nov. 3, 2013, photo, President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign rally with supporters for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe at Washington Lee High School in Arlington, Va. Former President Obama will campaign with McAuliffe in the final stretch of the Virginia governor's race. McAuliffe's campaign announced that Obama will join him in Richmond on Oct. 23, 2021, to mobilize Virginians during early voting, which began weeks ago.
In this Nov. 3, 2013, photo, President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign rally with supporters for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe at Washington Lee High School in Arlington, Va. Former President Obama will campaign with McAuliffe in the final stretch of the Virginia governor's race. McAuliffe's campaign announced that Obama will join him in Richmond on Oct. 23, 2021, to mobilize Virginians during early voting, which began weeks ago.

Road testing for the 2022 midterms

In many ways, Virginia's Nov. 2 gubernatorial race is a road test for get-out-the vote programs Democrats will employ in 2022 as they try to keep control of Congress.

Elections experts already predict Republicans will take back the House based on historical patterns and redistricting. Democrats control the House by only eight votes, 220-212; the Senate is tied 50-50, with Harris breaking ties for the Democrats. Black voters also could make the difference in closely contested contested congressional elections in 2022.

Republican control of either chamber will likely thwart Biden's ability to pass any legacy-defining legislation in the second half of his presidency.

Democrats' plans include registration drives at colleges, ads on urban radio, a "Souls to the Polls" program involving Black churches and highly publicized appearances by leaders like Obama.

High voter turnout among Black Americans is a must for Democrats if they are to win their third straight Virginia governor's race. Polls over the course of the campaign have given McAuliffe small leads over Youngkin, but the race has tightened in recent weeks.

A Monmouth University Poll released Wednesday showed a dead heat, 46% for each candidate. McAuliffe had 5-percentage-point leads in Monmouth polls in August and September.

At the Richmond rally, Obama did not cite Youngkin by name, nor did he mention former President Donald Trump by name. But he attacked "the lies and conspiracy theories" Trump continues to advance about his 2020 loss to 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 to Youngkin, Obama reupped a refrain he used during his days on the campaign trail: "Don't boo – vote!"

Nadia Brown, a political scientist at Georgetown University, told USA TODAY that if McAuliffe wants to mobilize Black voters, he'll need to focus more on the policies they care about. “The things that are really motivating people to either stay home or to go out is policy. It's not rhetoric,” Brown said.

“I would say that Black folks are looking to see are real policies, but there are specific policies that Black folks care about repeatedly," Brown said. "Some of them are: decriminalizing marijuana and expunging people's records; there are criminal justice reform, equal access to affordable housing; climate change is an issue for Black people, particularly Black millennials and Gen Zs.”

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Apathy and anxiety

Democrats (and Republicans) enter the final days of the Virginia campaign with high anxiety about voter turnout among large groups of their constituents, analysts said.

Among the reasons: voter burnout and the fact that Trump – whose reelection bid triggered intense voter interest in 2020 – is no longer on the ballot.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Another possibility for low voter enthusiasm is that McAuliffe's victory in a Democratic primary this year prevented the party from choosing either Jennifer Carroll Foy or Jennifer McClellan as Virginia's first Black female major-party gubernatorial nominee.

A Black nominee would have injected more energy into the race, analysts said. Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the second Black person in the commonwealth to win statewide election, also lost out on the nomination.

“Terry McAuliffe in many ways is more of the same. You're looking at a white male who is older than 50, who knows how to raise money, who knows how to campaign," Wrighten said. "And it's really in terms of progression is exactly the opposite of this direction that Virginia is moving if you look at the current state Legislature. The Virginia Legislature is actually pretty progressive, especially in relation to historically where it's been."

More: Lack of party support and money, plus racism and sexism, mean Black women often lose statewide elections

Voter apathy is a challenge in all Virginia governor's races, analysts said, because the state holds those races at an unusual time, one year after the previous presidential election. New Jersey is the only other state holding a governor's election this November.

Candidates in these states often have trouble reaching voters who are burned out after the presidential politics just a year before. Republican pollster Whit Ayres noted that "you don't have the advantage of a presidential race to drive voter turnout."

Trump and the stakes

This is especially true after 2020, when the prospect of Trump's reelection triggered heavy voter turnout, especially among Black voters who regarded him as a racist. Biden carried Virginia over Trump by 10 percentage points.

So far, at least, many Black voters and other voters don't regard Youngkin as a Trump-like threat, and polls show a race within the polling margin of error.

"The loss of Donald Trump as a motivating factor is real," said Democratic political analyst Jamal Simmons.

That's complicating a race in a state that has trended Democratic over the past decade. Democrats have won two straight governor's races, including a win by McAuliffe in 2013.

Republican Glenn Youngkin, right, makes a point to Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the final debate between the candidates before the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election.
Republican Glenn Youngkin, right, makes a point to Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the final debate between the candidates before the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election.

Simmons said Democrats are trying to reach Black voters, and others, by stressing "what's at stake" in the election.

More: Can Republicans reclaim suburban voters turned off by Donald Trump?

More: Virginia governor's race: Terry McAuliffe, Glenn Youngkin argue about vaccination mandates

A Republican governor like Youngkin, McAuliffe and allies argue, would move to cut education and other vital programs, end abortion rights, support economic policies that favor the wealthy and push for new Trump-backed restrictions on voting by people of color.

McAuliffe "needs a good turnout, and for Democrats that means a good turnout of Blacks," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center For Politics. "That's why they've scheduled so many big hitters the last two weeks."

Reaching Black voters

In addition to high-powered surrogates like Obama and Harris, McAuliffe and the Democrats are trying to reach African American voters via interviews on urban and gospel radio stations as well as nationally syndicated shows. The campaign and the organization People For The American Way have partnered on a series of radio ads aimed at Black voters.

They're holding voter registration and balloting drives in Black neighborhoods throughout the state. Another focus is historically Black colleges and universities like Hampton and Norfolk State.

McAuliffe has visited more than 60 Black churches during the campaign.

The Rev. H. Patrick Cason leads Bethany Baptist Church in Chesapeake, one of the places of worship McAuliffe has visited in the past several weeks. He told USA TODAY McAuliffe is not a stranger to his congregants.

“Terry McAuliffe actually has a great history here at Bethany Baptist Church," Cason said. "They were actually happy to see him ... because they understand really what he did for a lot of the population.”

'Souls to the Polls'

McAuliffe's work on restoring rights to ex-felons was an advantage to members of the church, who have spent the past 30 years working with the courts and helping members of their community land on their feet after leaving prison. (During a Democratic primary debate in June, McAuliffe touted his record of restoring voting rights to more than 173,000 Virginians.)

Cason did note that he has not received communication from Republicans on speaking at his church.

"I've never received a phone call – and I’ve been pastoring for 10 years, five years at this particular church, five years in another church – from any Republican representation that wanted to come and speak to the Black church,” he said. “There has been no extension towards the Black church in my community.”

Churches are a focal point of a get-out-the-vote program called "Souls to the Polls," designed to take advantage of a new development in Virginia election law: Early voting can now be done on Sundays.

"This is the first year that you can vote on Sunday," Harris says on the video that played in Black churches last weekend and will be repeated on Sunday. "So, please, vote after today's service."

In this Oct. 17, 2021, photo, political activist Stacey Abrams, waves to the crowd with Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe during a rally in Norfolk, Va. McAuliffe won Virginia's 2013 governor's race by embracing his own brand of personal politics that rely on decades-old friendships, back-slapping charisma and tell-it-like-it-is authenticity.
In this Oct. 17, 2021, photo, political activist Stacey Abrams, waves to the crowd with Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe during a rally in Norfolk, Va. McAuliffe won Virginia's 2013 governor's race by embracing his own brand of personal politics that rely on decades-old friendships, back-slapping charisma and tell-it-like-it-is authenticity.

During a tour last Sunday in Norfolk, former Georgia lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams told Black Virginians that "what you say in 2021 will show the world who we are in 2022 and 2024 and beyond."

Candidates have to close the deal

No one doubts that McAuliffe will get the vast majority of Black voters in Virginia. Political scientists note Black voters are pragmatic and often vote for the person who they believe will do the least amount of harm to their community.

The question is how many voters will cast ballots and whether they will be enough to offset Youngkin's expected advantage among white voters in the state. Youngkin and the Republicans are also courting Black voters.

During his campaign, Youngkin has argued that his education and economic development plans will benefit Black Virginians in particular. He said McAuliffe failed Black voters during his term as governor and faulted his Democratic foe for association with current Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who nearly lost his job after the surfacing of college photos of men in blackface.

Obama's get-out-the-vote visit shows that McAuliffe "is scared" and realizes that voters will reject his plans for education, law enforcement, and vaccine mandates, Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said.

"Terry McAuliffe failed to deliver for the Black community as governor – losing their support – and now he is desperately trying to regain their trust," she said.

Throughout the campaign, McAuliffe has stressed his first-term economic record and said he would continue to represent the interests of Black Americans and other people of color.

“Terry McAuliffe is running for governor to rebuild a stronger economy that creates good-paying jobs and invests in education, and he is the only one in this race who has a strong record of lifting up Black Virginians," McAuliffe spokesperson Renzo Olivari told USA TODAY. "Hundreds of thousands of Virginians have voted so far, and we expect to see record turnout among Black Virginians for an off-cycle campaign this year."

In last year's presidential election, Trump actually increased the GOP share of the African American vote nationwide to 12%, up from the 8% he got in the 2016 election, according to exit polls. The increase was less pronounced in Virginia, where Trump won 10% of the Black vote last year, according to exit polls; five years ago, that figure was 9%.

In the last Virginia governor's race in 2017, Northam won 87% of the Black vote to Republican Ed Gillespie's 12%. Black Americans made up 20% of the electorate, a number the Democrats probably will need to match this time around.

Political celebrities like Obama and Harris can do only so much to help McAuliffe, analysts said. Registration drives and radio ads also have their limits.

In the end, they said, the candidate himself has to find a way to inspire Black voters.

Said Simmons: "Terry McAuliffe has to close the deal."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Barack Obama rallies in Virginia for Terry McAuliffe in governor race

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