RICHMOND, Va. — Former President Barack Obama, campaigning Saturday for Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s closely watched race for governor, framed the Nov. 2 election as an opportunity to decisively reject the rhetoric and politics of another former president, Donald Trump.
"We’re at a turning point right now, both here in America and around the world," Obama told a crowd of about 2,000 gathered outdoors on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. "Because there's a mood out there. There's a politics of meanness and division and conflict, of tribalism and cynicism. That's one path. But the good news is there's another path where we pull together and we solve big problems."
With 10 days until Election Day, polls have shown a tight race between McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin, who has Trump's endorsement for the job. Youngkin has kept Trump at a distance, avoiding campaign appearances with him as he attempts to appeal to an electorate that backed President Joe Biden by 10 percentage points last year. But Youngkin also has called for auditing voting machines and has launched an "election integrity task force" — efforts that play into lies and other baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
Obama linked support for such conspiracy theories to the Jan. 6 riots on the Capitol by Trump supporters trying to block certification of Biden's victory.
"What are you willing to stand up for? When are you willing to say no to your own supporters? What are you willing to say? There are some things that are more important than getting elected," Obama said. "And maybe American democracy is one of those things."
Christian Martinez, a Youngkin spokesperson, said Obama's appearance promoted "the fantasies of Terry and the left because they can’t run on their failed record and radical vision for the future."
Youngkin has said he believes Biden was legitimately elected and last week criticized a pro-Trump, right-wing rally where attendees pledged allegiance to a flag that organizers said was present at the riot. But the message from Obama, McAuliffe and others Saturday reinforced a strategy to make Youngkin into a Trump-like figure in the eyes of Virginia voters.
"Glenn Youngkin is not a reasonable Republican," McAuliffe told the crowd. "I call him Donald Trump in khakis. Do we want a lapdog to Donald Trump to be our governor here in the commonwealth? No we don’t."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison called Youngkin a Trump "fanboy." Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, like Obama, asserted that the race is critical to preserving democracy and voting rights. And Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney expanded the critique to include the Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, two Republicans who have gained national attention for opposing vaccine mandates in their states.
“Think about what's going on in Florida and think about what's going on in Texas,” Stoney said in his opening remarks. “Do you want those policies in Virginia?”
Campaigns for governor in Virginia come the year after presidential elections, and the results are often viewed as a judgment on the party in the White House and a harbinger for the midterm elections.
McAuliffe, a former governor was, because of a state law unique to Virginia, prohibited from serving a second consecutive term. His enduring popularity with Democrats helped him steamroll through a primary, but McAuliffe has found in Youngkin a Republican who has cautiously navigated Trump era politics and has not been easily defined.
Youngkin has preferred not to nationalize the race the way Democrats have, his unwillingness to campaign alongside Trump extending to other prominent Republican surrogates who have been absent from Virginia down the stretch.
“I am surprised Donald Trump hasn't come,” Harrison told reporters before Saturday’s rally. “I mean, he's endorsed Youngkin six times already, so you would think you'd be here. … At the end of the day it doesn't really matter to us whether Trump comes or not. Glenn Youngkin is going to lose this race.”
Obama’s visit was one in a series of visits from national Democrats marching in to boost voter turnout and lift McAuliffe in the closing weeks. President Joe Biden will return to Virginia next week for his second event with McAuliffe. First lady Jill Biden, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and rock star Dave Matthews are among those who have rallied or are scheduled to rally with McAuliffe.
Youngkin, in the midst of a statewide bus tour, ended Saturday with a rally outside a farmers market in nearby Glen Allen, where he was greeted by a crowd estimated at 2,000. He made a brief mention of Obama, who at the McAuliffe event mocked Youngkin, a former collegiate basketball player, for shooting hoops in ads.
“I just challenged Barack Obama to a game of one-on-one,” Youngkin told his audience, referring to a video tweeted of him nailing a three-pointer and inviting Obama to play.
But Youngkin mostly kept his focus, as he has throughout his campaign, on state and local issues such as taxes and schools. He spoke of a “Virginia promise” that “hangs in the balance.
“The spirit of our founding fathers is all around us,” Youngkin said. “And we have to rise to the occasion. It is not about me. It is about you. So tonight. I ask you to hire me to go work for you.”