RICHMOND, Va. — Barack Obama came to Virginia’s capital on Saturday seeking to charge up tuned-out Democratic voters — and jolt Terry McAuliffe’s campaign for governor.
The former president is the latest high-profile surrogate to visit the commonwealth for McAuliffe, the former Democratic governor locked in a close battle with first-time Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin with just 10 days to go until the gubernatorial election.
"I know a lot of people are tired of politics right now," Obama said, urging the crowd on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University to shake it off and vote. “We don’t have time to be tired. What is required is sustained effort,” he added, casting the race as not only critical for Virginia's future, but as an early battle in an existential fight for the future of American democracy.
Obama’s visit is part of a larger effort to combat flagging enthusiasm among Democrats in the commonwealth, which has become increasingly blue since McAuliffe last ran in 2013.
Despite Democrats’ decadelong statewide elections sweeps in Virginia, the race has tightened in public polling significantly in the closing weeks.
“We know this in Virginia: There are more Democrats here,” Jaime Harrison, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, told reporters at the Richmond rally. “If we get the Democrats to turn out, we win. And that’s point blank.”
“You got to juice them up a little bit, let them know what’s at stake,” he added.
Obama did not mention either Youngkin or his own successor in the White House — former President Donald Trump — by name. But he leveled withering criticism at Youngkin over a rally last week in Virginia where Trump dialed in to praise the candidate and Trump supporters said the Pledge of Allegiance to a flag they said was carried at the Capitol during the insurrection on Jan. 6.
“You can’t run ads telling me you’re a regular ol’ hoops-playing, dish-washing, fleece-wearing guy, but quietly cultivate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy,” Obama said.
(Youngkin called the pledge “weird and wrong” and said he had no involvement in the planning of that rally, but organizers previously told The Washington Post that Youngkin had thanked them for setting it up.)
Obama’s campaign stop in Richmond is also no coincidence. The state’s capital and surrounding suburbs are one of the key battlegrounds in the state, and is the same city Obama campaigned in for now-Gov. Ralph Northam in the days ahead of the 2017 gubernatorial race.
Youngkin, too, was in the region on Saturday. Around the same time as McAuliffe’s rally, the Republican nominee and former private equity executive was hosting a meet and greet at a Richmond restaurant just a couple miles down the road. He also had a pair of rallies scheduled in the Richmond suburbs, Chesterfield and Henrico, later on Saturday.
But Youngkin is taking a decidedly different strategy than McAuliffe. For the Richmond-area events, and the rest of his bus tour, Youngkin’s campaign said it would be eschewing national surrogates in favor of “everyday Virginians,” with Youngkin mocking McAuliffe in a statement for relying “on big name surrogates to draw paltry, apathetic crowds."
It does not mean that Youngkin has totally cast off national Republicans — he has previously campaigned with politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who recently headlined a fundraiser for him. Avoiding big-name Republicans in the final days of the race is an attempt to not further remind voters of Trump, who has backed his campaign but has not physically appeared in the state.
“The biggest reason is because it’s a state that, obviously, is politically challenging for Republicans,” said Zack Roday, a Richmond-based Republican strategist. Roday said that Democrats bringing in big names creates a good contrast for Youngkin and likened it to his work on then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s successful 2014 reelection, when he said Democrats also brought in many of the same heavy hitters as McAuliffe to try to energize the base.
He said he expected Youngkin to continue his heavy focus on education in the closing days of the race. “He’s smartly picked tactics,” he said. “He’s deployed tactics with this bus tour to underscore that, versus shifting gears. There’s no point to shifting gears if it is working.”
Democrats have long been trying to goad Trump into visiting the state, hoping to further highlight the connection between Youngkin and the former president and secure voters in the state who fled the GOP because of the former president. But failing that, Democrats hope the visits from top surrogates will fire up supporters nevertheless.
“When you have these core Democrats, like the Obamas,” Democratic pollster Carly Cooperman said, “I think it increases the likelihood of getting Democrats that maybe feel apathetic or maybe don’t want to show up.”
“If McAuliffe can turn out Democrats, he should be able to win this race,” Cooperman, whose firm recently independently polled the race, continued. “Maybe they’re not enthusiastic about him, but maybe Obama will give the extra push.”
McAuliffe’s campaign and his allies in the state have been acutely aware of the enthusiasm gap they are staring down. “Voter fatigue is also very real,” James Fedderman, the president of Virginia Education Association (which has backed McAuliffe), said earlier this week.
Fedderman said his organization has been focused on connecting with its “base voters,” and has been talking about the election differently. “One of the things that really stands out to us this election, that’s very different: We’re just encouraging our people to get out and vote, we’re not pushing a particular candidate,” he said. “When our people get out to vote, we win.”