Barack Obama warned Georgia Democrats Friday that Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp — who as secretary of state oversees the election — is trying to make it difficult for them to vote.
“They will try to disenfranchise you and take away your right to vote,” the former president told an estimated 6,000 people at an evening rally at Atlanta’s Morehouse College.
“If you are aspiring to the highest office in the state in which you pledge to look out for the people of your state, then how can you actively try to prevent the citizens of your state from exercising their most basic right?” he asked.
“I’m here for one simple reason: To ask you to vote,” Obama said. “The consequence of any of us staying home are profound.”
Obama visited Atlanta to give a full-throated endorsement of Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is seeking to become the first African American female governor.
Abrams is locked in a too-close-to-call race against Kemp. She told the enthusiastic crowd that her opponent is “the home-grown architect of voter suppression.”
Kemp became secretary of state in January 2010. During his tenure, more than 1.4 million voter registrations have been canceled. About 53,000 voter registrations have been put on hold under a state law requiring the applicant’s name to exactly match that on other government records.
An Associated Press investigation found that almost 70 percent of those registrations were from African American applicants.
Kemp says claims of voter suppression are untrue. He said that under his leadership voter registration in Georgia has grown to over 6.6 million. He says concerns about voter suppression are a manufactured crisis Abrams created.
Obama arrived in Atlanta late Friday after speaking at a rally for Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.
He used the Georgia event to offer a sustained rhetorical attack against President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans on issues ranging from the economy to the political tone as the November 6 elections approach.
“The character of our country is on the ballot,” he said. “In the closing weeks in this election, we jave seen repeated, constant, inseccant, nonstop, attempts to divide us with rhetoric designed to make us angry or make us fearful.. rhetoric that is designed to exploit our history of racial, ethnic, and religious divisions, to try to pit us against one another.”
Obama’s rally at Morehouse College, an all-male historically black college, was the latest star-studded event in a governor’s race that has generated national attention.
Obama spoke a day after billionaire media mogul Oprah Winfrey campaigned for Abrams, who’s vying to become the nation’s first African American female governor, in the Atlanta suburbs.
The Georgia contest is largely viewed as a preview of the 2020 presidential election because the candidates are drawing sharp lines between liberal and conservative policies ranging from health care to immigration.
Abrams’ campaign, along with Gillum’s gubernatorial run, are also tests to whether Democrats can make gains in the South with African American candidates touting more liberal agendas.
Republicans have brought in their own stars. Vice President Mike Pence, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, and presidential daughter-in-law Lara Trump campaigned with Kemp. Trump will appear with Kemp at a rally in Macon Sunday afternoon.
Trump offered a preview of his approach to Abrams, a former state House minority leader, from the White House on Thursday, saying “She’s not qualified to be governor of Georgia, not qualified.”
He explained: “Take a look at her past, take a look at her history, take a look at what she wants to do and what she has in mind for the state,” Trump said. “That state will be in big, big trouble very quickly and the people of Georgia don’t want that.”
Obama and Trump are aggressively campaigning for their party’s candidates, but at times it appears as if they’re running against each other. Trump, at rallies, has railed against Obama’s economic and immigration policies.
“We got the economy growing again and, by the way, it hasn’t stopped growing since,” Obama said. “So when the Republicans start talking about now how great the economy is, where do you think that started?”
Many in the audience waited more than eight hours on a chilly Atlanta day to make sure they got a good seat to see Obama and Abrams when the doors opened.
Anne Mathis, a 72-year-old retiree from Decatur, Georgia, said she’s not worried about voter suppression.
“It’s in the bag,” Mathis said of Abrams’ chances on Tuesday. “Don’t you see all of us out here? Just think about how many of us are out there in the state of Georgia,” she said, referring to passionate Abrams backers.
David Smith, 21, of Muscogee County, said he didn’t mind the cold since he could see two Democratic “mega-stars.”
“I mean how often do you really get to see a president if you don’t live in Iowa?” he said. “One reason I supported (Abrams) in the primary is she had this vision of turning out people who have never been talked to by a candidate for governor. We’re from outside (Atlanta), far out. The fact (is) that she’s been to Columbus four, five times...”
Curtis Johnson, a Fayette County Democratic volunteer, said the atmosphere in the arena reminded him of Obama’s 2008 presidential run.
“We didn’t have this kind of interest in the Hillary campaign in 2016 that I’m seeing now - this is reminiscent of Barack running, this is what we saw,” he said. “People are fired up and won’t take it anymore.”