Pleading with Georgia Democrats to stay energized ahead of a tough election, former President Barack Obama challenged supporters to demand they “deserve better” than the Republicans on the state’s ballot.

Amid cheers from a crowd of thousands, Obama urged anxious Democrats to mobilize behind U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, Stacey Abrams and other candidates on the party’s ticket because “democracy is at stake in this election.”

The former president acknowledged that rising inflation is plaguing Georgians – and “taking a bite” out of paychecks – but pushed voters to question what plans Republicans have to target higher prices and settle a wobbly economy.

“I’m here to tell you that tuning out is not an option. Despair is not an option,” Obama said. “The only way to make this economy fair is if we, all of us, fight for it. The only way to save democracy is if we, together, nurture it and fight for it.”

Obama’s visit came at a pivotal moment in a bitter midterm battle, and nervous Democrats hope he can inject energy into the campaigns as they head into the final week of the early in-person voting period.

During Obama’s rally in 2018 to boost Abrams and other statewide contenders, polls showed Democrats gaining on Republicans in the state’s marquee races. Now, Democrats are on the defensive.

Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker are locked in a neck-and-neck race that could determine control of the U.S. Senate, and allegations that the Republican pressured two ex-girlfriends to have abortions haven’t appeared to change the dynamics of the race.

And Gov. Brian Kemp holds a statistically significant lead over Abrams in most public polls, giving Republicans hope the incumbent can avoid an unpredictable December runoff. If no candidate gets a majority of the vote, state law requires a four-week overtime period.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Republicans scoffed at Obama’s visit, casting it as a failed rescue attempt. At a campaign stop in Waycross, Walker said the former president was wasting his time.

“Get Obama out of here,” Walker said at a rally in Waycross. “Unless he wants to come down here and run for Senate – and I can beat him, too.”

Obama, in turn, was unsparing in his criticism of the former football player. He mocked Walker for carrying a “phony badge” — an honorary emblem the Republican brandished during a debate — and questioned how his prowess on the gridiron prepared him for the U.S. Senate.

“You may have liked me as president, but you wouldn’t like me starting at tailback for the Dawgs,” Obama said, asking the audience to imagine his “slow, old skinny behind” getting pummeled by a linebacker. “You’d have to scrape me off the field.”

“My point is not that being a football player disqualifies you from being a senator if you had put in the work,” Obama added. “But in the case of Rev. Warnock’s opponent, there’s very little evidence that he’s taken any interest, bothered to learn anything about or displayed any kind of inclination toward public service.”

Why Obama visited

Obama’s visit was only one of a handful of his appearances this campaign season, and Democrats particularly hope he can drive up Black voter turnout while giving Abrams and Warnock a rare national figure they can both rally around.

The two-term president left office with a nearly 60% approval rating, and he’s hovered around that mark in recent Gallup polls. He was not so popular during the 2014 midterm election, however, when state Democrats avoided his visit to Georgia in the campaign’s final weeks.

The candidates’ eager embrace of Obama contrasts with a more restrained approach to President Joe Biden, who was the first Democratic presidential nominee to win Georgia since 1992 but remains unpopular with some independent voters. Biden’s approval hovers below 40% in recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution polls.

While Abrams has welcomed Biden’s support and said she’s encouraged him to come to Georgia, Warnock has steered clear of the president— and refused to say whether Biden should run for a second term in office, dismissing the question as “pundit” talk.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

With Obama, there was no such hesitation. Thousands of supporters waited for hours in lines that snaked outside the Gateway City Arena in College Park, and many held signs that read “Defend Choice” or “One Georgia.”

Inside an arena packed with an estimated 7,000 supporters, heart-pounding music blared in between candidate speeches, making the setting feel more like a festive college homecoming party than a political rally.

Jabs and jests

Abrams infused her remarks with attacks on Kemp and a pitch for her priorities, which include tapping a surplus of more than $6.5 billion to expand Medicaid, raise teacher salaries and finance needs-based higher education scholarships.

“For the last 20 years, men like Brian Kemp have tried to convince us that we have a poverty of resources,” Abrams said. “But I know the answer. It’s not a poverty of resources. It’s a poverty of leadership. And we just struck it rich.”

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

And Warnock echoed other Democrats emboldened by surging early voter turnout that has already surpassed 1.2 million votes — and has far outpaced voter participation levels in the 2018 midterm.

“We need everybody to vote,” said Warnock. “And the good news is Georgia is turning out early and turning out in record numbers. We are turning out because we know that a vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire — for ourselves and for our children.”

He laced his address with some of his most cutting jabs at Walker, mocking the Republican’s debate response saying people worried about the rising cost of insulin need to “eat right.”

“You actually have to know stuff to do this job,” Warnock said to a roar of applause from a crowd that broke into chants of the Democrat’s name. Warnock went further, saying Walker “lies about the most basic facts” and would embarrass Georgia in office.

“Not only is he not ready,” Warnock said, “he’s not fit.”

But it was Obama who might have landed the sharpest punches, saying Walker dreamed of playing “cops and robbers.” As the former president’s speech neared its end, he couldn’t help but chuckle at his own joke as he jabbed at both Walker and his successor Donald Trump.

“Seems to me he’s a celebrity who wants to be a politician — and we’ve seen how that goes.”