RICHMOND, Va. — Former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBarack Obama wishes a happy 58th birthday to 'best friend' Michelle Voting rights is a constitutional right: Failure is not an option Florida looms large in Republican 2024 primary MORE received a warm welcome as he returned to the campaign trail Thursday to rally voters in the final weeks of the critical Virginia governor's race.
Obama was back on the campaign trail for the first time since leaving the White House to stump for Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ahead of the Nov. 7 election, which is seen as a must-win for Democrats. Obama campaigned for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy in New Jersey earlier in the day.
The former president took the stage in Virginia to deafening applause and intermittent chants of his old campaign slogan, "Yes we can." Staffers said more than 6,200 people attended the rally, with a roster including outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and federal and local Virginia politicians.
Obama spent the bulk of his speech condemning the current state of politics, which he called "so divided and so angry and so nasty." He urged Democrats not to become "complacent," acknowledging that Democratic turnout typically drops off in years where there is not a presidential race.
"This choice matters. The question is, will you show up to vote?" Obama asked the crowd, which was dominated by a sea of blue Northam campaign posters, with some attendees sporting shirts and accessories of the former president.
"In off-year elections, Democrats sometimes —" Obama started, pausing to laughter from the audience. "Y'all get a little sleepy. You get a little complacent. This is not my opinion. This is the data.
"It's going to come down to how bad you want it."
Northam is locked in a tight race with GOP candidate Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman who came unexpectedly close to winning a 2014 Senate race against incumbent Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerWe are America's independent contractors, and we are terrified Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two Senate Judiciary Committee to debate key antitrust bill MORE (D). Recent polls have shown Northam with a comfortable lead, but the race is expected to come down to the wire.
The Virginia race is a top priority for Democrats as one of the only statewide races this year. Obama was campaigning in New Jersey earlier in the day Thursday, but Murphy, the Democrat, is expected to easily win the governor's mansion on Nov. 7.
Virginia's gubernatorial contest is typically used as a way to gauge where the electorate is a year out from the midterm elections. As Democrats eye taking back the House in 2018, they're hoping the party's newfound enthusiasm and President TrumpDonald TrumpSanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Laura Ingraham 'not saying' if she'd support Trump in 2024 The Hill's 12:30 Report: Djokovic may not compete in French Open over vaccine requirement MORE's underwater approval rating will propel them to victory in Virginia.
Obama praised McAuliffe and Northam's tenure over the past four years and touted the Democratic hopeful's record as a physician in the U.S. Army and later a pediatric neurologist.
"Ralph's whole life has been about honest, responsible service to others," Obama said, who also touted the other Democrats on the ticket, including Justin Fairfax, who is running for lieutenant governor, and state Attorney General Mark Herring.
"You have people who are in this race for the right reasons," he continued. "At a time when so many of us can be so cynical about government and public service, to have someone step up who you can trust ... that's worth something."
Northam sought to tie his opponent to Trump and rattled off a list of White House policies, including withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, reversing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and instituting a travel ban Northam called "totally un-American."
"My opponent Ed Gillespie is cut from the same mold that Donald Trump is," Northam said. "He's nothing more than a Washington lobbyist who has now become Donald Trump's chief lobbyist."
Obama took several jabs at Trump and Gillespie, though he did not refer to either by name.
Obama noted that while Americans all have "valid concerns" regarding crime, he condemned Gillespie for his rhetoric that the former president labeled as a scare tactic.
Obama was alluding to both Trump and Gillespie's use of the MS-13 gang and tying their violence to Northam.
"If he thought these were serious issues, he'd offer serious solutions," Obama said. "What he really believes is if you scare enough voters, you might score enough points to win an election."
Both Obama and Northam also played up the state's diversity. Obama's campaign visits to both Virginia and New Jersey were an effort to mobilize black voters who came out in droves to support his presidential bids in 2008 and 2012.
All of the speeches at the Thursday night rally laid out the stakes for Democrats and the need to get everyone to turn out in order to keep the governor's mansion in Democratic hands.
"We know it's going to be a fight. It's not a cake walk," Northam said, concluding his speech. "It's going to take all of us together. Are you ready to fight with me?"