Obama Attacks Tactics of Republican Candidate for Virginia Governor in Return to Campaign Trail

Former President Barack Obama spoke on Thursday at a campaign rally for Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate for governor, in Richmond.
Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama, returning to the campaign trail on Thursday for the first time since leaving the White House, issued an unexpectedly stinging attack on the immigration-focused campaign of the Republican candidate for Virginia governor.

Seeking to lift the candidacy of Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, the Democratic nominee for governor, Mr. Obama abandoned nine months of self-imposed political silence to accuse Ed Gillespie, the Republican, of fear-mongering tactics that he called “damaging and corrosive to our democracy.”

While not mentioning President Trump by name, Mr. Obama seemed to have the racially tinged 2016 presidential campaign on his mind as he denounced a controversial commercial that Mr. Gillespie has aired that targets the gang MS-13 — which has roots in Central America — and features a group of heavily tattooed Salvadoran prisoners.

“What he’s really trying to deliver is fear,” Mr. Obama said of Mr. Gillespie. “What he really believes is that if you scare enough voters, it might score just enough votes to win an election.”

It is, Mr. Obama continued, “as cynical as politics gets.”

The former president’s visit, which drew about 7,500 people to the Greater Richmond Convention Center, was his second campaign appearance of the day. Earlier Thursday, Mr. Obama stumped in Newark for Philip D. Murphy, the Democratic nominee for governor in New Jersey, largely ignoring Mr. Murphy’s Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.

Yet while Mr. Murphy is comfortably ahead, Mr. Northam is locked in a competitive race. A former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a Washington establishment fixture, Mr. Gillespie has turned to more hard-line tactics in an effort to win over both swing voters and Mr. Trump’s supporters.

While Virginia is increasingly Democratic — Mr. Obama carried it twice — voter turnout plummets when it holds its governor’s election the year after a presidential vote. And that often results in an electorate that is older and whiter than what is reflected in White House races.

Mr. Obama pointedly invoked this trend.

“Sometimes y’all get a little sleepy, get a little complacent,” he said of Democrats in off-year elections, warning that they would have no right to complain about their elected officials if they “slept through” Election Day.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Jonathan Martin and Nick Corasaniti