Barack Obama vehemently warned Virginia voters on Saturday against any complacency that what was now a “blue” state would stay that way, as he spoke at a rally to support Terry McAuliffe in the tightening race for governor.
The former president urged supporters to turn out, despite this being an off-year election, in order to keep Democrats in control of not just the state but ultimately the nation.
“For the direction of Virginia and the direction of this country for generations to come,” Obama said, “don’t sit this one out – vote.”
Virginia’s governor’s race is the first big chance voters get to express their approval of Joe Biden’s administration and is widely viewed as an indicator of whether the Democrats will keep control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections.
The former president’s appearance in Richmond on Saturday followed several other high-profile visits to the state by Democrats this month, including Vice-President Kamala Harris and two of Georgia’s big names, the activist and former candidate for governor Stacey Abrams and the Atlanta mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms.
About 2,000 people were admitted to the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond on Saturday afternoon to attend the rally for McAuliffe, who has previously served as Virginia governor.
Mackenzie LaBar, acting president of VCU’s Young Democrats, said Obama’s presence was bound to propel voters to the polls.
“This is a pretty blue area so, unfortunately, a lot of ‘blue’ people, blue voters tend to get complacent,” he said.
As further encouragement, Obama recounted meeting a 106-year-old Black woman who had lived through the terror of opposition to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and survived to see the election of the first US Black president, himself, in 2008, and never once missed a chance to vote.
“Born in the shadows of slavery, deep in the midst of Jim Crow,” Obama said, “She has witnessed all that. And I thought, ‘If she’s not tired, I can’t be tired.’”
Almost every speaker alongside Obama at the rally emphasized that the right to vote had never been fully guaranteed in America.
Andre Hayes is one of over 200,000 Virginians, many people of color, whose right to vote had been lost but was restored by McAuliffe when he was previously governor.
“I’ll tell you, when I got that letter in the mail and it was stamped, sealed and approved, and had his signature on it,” Hayes paused to look at the sky. “I was a happy man.”
Virginia is one of three states whose constitution permanently bars those convicted of a felony from voting.
The clause was seen as racially motivated when it was added to Virginia’s constitution in 1902, shortly after Black political power propelled 85 Black politicians to office during Reconstruction.
Speaking at the rally, McAuliffe touted his expansion of voting rights in Virginia and he and Obama commented on increased voter restrictions, which have hit states such as Texas and Florida in particular.
Obama also noted that Senate Republicans once again blocked federal voting rights legislation last week.
“Republicans are trying to rig elections because the truth is people disagree with your ideas,” Obama said. “And when that doesn’t work, you start fabricating lies and conspiracy theories about the last election, the one you didn’t win. That’s not how democracy is supposed to work.”
While the purpose of Saturday’s rally was to energize Democratic voters, many children attended as well. Saturday was the first time Tamer and Brandy Mokshah’s two elementary-aged children would get to see Obama in person.
“These two were born into a world where we had a Black president, right? So that was deeply emotional, really important. And then we’ve seen sort of the extreme opposite of that in the previous five years,” Tamer told the Guardian.
“So we have taken them with us to vote since before they could speak. They go with us all the time. We want to make sure that we’re able to leave something behind in terms of this process and what democracy actually means.”
Education policy and school curriculum have been thrust to the center of the governor’s race, with a focus on Covid-19 protocols, critical race theory, and school choice. Critical race theory is an academic discipline that examines the ways in which racism operates in US laws and society. It is not taught in US secondary schools.
Obama said simply: “We should be making it easier for teachers in schools to give our kids a world class education.”
Disinformation and conspiracy theories have plagued the gubernatorial election, with Democrats protesting that Republicans are touting misleading Covid-19 guidance and focusing on inflammatory campaigning.