- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2017

President Obama hit the campaign trail Thursday for the first time since leaving office in January, calling on voters to rally behind the Democratic nominees for governor in New Jersey and Virginia.

The appearances on behalf of Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in Virginia and Phil Murphy, a onetime Goldman Sachs banker running in New Jersey, served as a reminder of Mr. Obama’s enduring star power in liberal-leaning states and among black voters, but Democrats said they hope his appeal will go well beyond those boundaries.

“The question for 2018 isn’t going to be how much of his time our candidates want, but how much time President Obama can afford to give,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist with deep ties to Virginia politics.

“He fires up Democratic voters and reminds independent voters of having someone in the White House who was actually capable of being president,” Mr. Ferguson said.

Campaigning in Newark with Mr. Murphy, where he was met with chants of “four more years,” and then Richmond with Mr. Northam, Mr. Obama said the world “counts on American having its act together” and “looking at us as an example.”

Mr. Obama said voters have the chance in less than 20 days to send a clear message that “we are rejecting the politics of division, we are rejecting a politics of fear, that we are embracing a politics that says everybody counts, a politics that says everybody deserves a chance, a politics that says everybody has dignity and worth, a politics of hope — that is what you are fighting for!”

Mr. Obama said voters have the chance to continue to build on the positive strides made on his watch — highlighting how the unemployment dropped, wages and income ticked up and “by the way we covered a whole bunch of folks with insurance too.”

And he warned against voters becoming complacent in the off-year election, as they have in the past, or disillusioned over the divisive nature of today’s politics.

“We need you to take this seriously because our democracy is at stake,” Mr. Obama said. “Elections matter, voting matters and you can’t take that for granted.”

Virginia was the country’s most reliably GOP state at the presidential level until Mr. Obama turned it blue in 2008, and it’s remained in the Democratic column in the two presidential elections since.

But with next year’s Senate battleground playing out in red states, it’s unclear whether he’ll be as much help after this year’s races.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who is up for re-election, said he’d be happy to have the former president campaign for him.

“Yes and yes — because he is popular,” Mr. Nelson said.

But Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, didn’t want to talk about it. When a reporter at the Capitol asked her about a potential Obama role in her campaign, she listened to the question, flashed a smile, then ducked into a senators-only elevator without answering.

GOP groups said Ms. McCaskill is trying to run away from her record, which they said showed she backed Mr. Obama’s stance 93 percent of the time in Senate votes.

“President Obama was directly responsible for some of the disastrous policies that hurt Missourians over the previous eight years, and they should remember that in 2018 when they go to the polls and decide if they want one of his biggest supporters still representing them in the U.S. Senate,” said Jeremy Adler, spokesman for Missouri Rising Action.

The Republican super PAC is backing state Attorney General Josh Hawley’s challenge to Ms. McCaskill in 2018.

Mr. Ferguson, though, said that the turbulent first year of the Trump administration has enhanced Mr. Obama’s legacy, making him a more powerful surrogate who can energize Democratic voters.

“His legacy, like the Affordable Care Act, has become more popular as people have seen how damaging Trump’s GOP is to the middle class,” Mr. Ferguson said. “Most incumbent Republicans will be hoping voters don’t start comparing their Washington vs. Washington in the Obama years because President Obama is way out of their league.”

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