By James Oliphant
ATLANTA (Reuters) -Democrats turned to former President Barack Obama on Friday to rally Georgia voters in a tight U.S. Senate race that could determine whether the party keeps control of the chamber after the upcoming midterm elections.
Obama, a two-term Democrat who left office in 2017, stumped in Atlanta for Senator Raphael Warnock, who faces Donald Trump-backed Republican challenger Herschel Walker. Polls show the race between Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker to be deadlocked.
Speaking before an adoring crowd of more than 5,000, Obama urged them to vote in the Nov. 8 election.
“I am here to tell you tuning out is not an option. Despair is not an option,” he said.
“The fundamental question you should be asking yourself right now is: ‘Who will fight for you?'”
The largely African-American crowd that jammed the arena just outside Atlanta chanted Obama’s signature slogan: “Yes we can” as he spoke.
Georgia is a top takeover target for Republicans, who need to pick up just one seat to gain control of the Senate. The historically conservative state elected President Joe Biden and both Warnock and Democratic Senator Jon Ossoff two years ago, suggesting the stirrings of a political realignment.
Obama also came to campaign for Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is taking on Republican Governor Brian Kemp. Abrams has consistently trailed Kemp in that contest.
His trip came as Democrats are growing increasingly anxious about the Senate race. For months, Warnock had held a steady polling edge over Walker, a former football star at the University of Georgia who has been dogged by questions about his turbulent personal life.
Walker has since closed the gap. On Thursday, the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, was caught by a television camera microphone at an event telling Biden that the race in Georgia was going “downhill.”
“It’s hard to believe that they will go for Herschel Walker,” Schumer told the president.
Walker has faced allegations of domestic violence from his ex-wife. More recently, two women have said that Walker pressured them to have abortions during their relationships, allegations he has denied.
Walker opposes abortion but has been inconsistent regarding whether it should be allowed in cases of rape or incest or to safeguard the health of the mother. Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, supports abortion rights.
Obama took a shot at Walker, comparing him to former President Donald Trump. “It seems to me he’s a celebrity who wants to be a politician,” Obama said. “And we’ve seen how that goes.”
A surge of Black voters were crucial to Warnock’s upset victory two years ago, and Obama came in large part to rally that community to come out again.
Georgia has seen a record-breaking number of early voters, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. More than 1.25 million residents have already voted as of Friday, far ahead of the total (730,706) at this point in 2018, the year of the last midterm election.
Obama’s appearance is the start of a five-state tour that will take him to the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania. That last appearance, on the Saturday before the Nov. 8 midterm elections, will be alongside Biden, who has held back from campaigning in some key battlegrounds as he struggles with low public approval ratings.
Beyond Georgia, Republicans have focused their efforts on flipping a Democratic Senate seat in Arizona or Nevada.
Republicans are also expected to win enough seats to take over the U.S. House of Representatives. Controlling both chambers will enable them to stonewall Biden’s agenda, block his executive branch nominees and launch investigations of his administration.
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)