Former President Obama urged Californians on Saturday to rise up against the “anger and division” of President Trump’s Washington and replace more than a half-dozen Republicans in the U.S. House.
In the first stop of a national tour to promote Democrats as they try to seize control of Congress, Obama told hundreds of campaign volunteers in Anaheim that “things can get worse” if too many of the party’s voters fail to cast ballots in the November midterm.
“When we’re not stepping up, other voices fill the void,” he said. “But the good news is in two months we have a chance to restore some sanity in our politics. We have a chance to flip the House of Representatives and make sure that we have checks and balances in Washington.”
The rally came a day after Obama’s blistering attack on Trump in an Illinois speech outlining his rationale for a Democratic takeover of the House. He cast Trump as a shameless demagogue who protects the privileged and the powerful while undercutting U.S. interests abroad and exploiting racial, ethnic and religious divides at home.
“The only way we reverse that cycle of anger and division is when each of us as citizens step up and say we’re going to take it upon ourselves to do things differently,” he said.
“Yes we can!” a man shouted from the back of the convention center ballroom, reprising an old Obama campaign line and drawing a roar of cheers.
It was one of many signs of nostalgia for Obama’s insurgent campaign for president in 2008. “Fired up, ready to go!” the volunteers chanted.
The rally underscored California’s pivotal role in determining which party will control the House for the rest of Trump’s term.
It also highlighted Orange County’s demise as one of the nation’s most reliable Republican strongholds, part of the state’s drift away from the GOP as California’s population has diversified.
Joining Obama on stage at the end of his remarks were six Democrats running to replace House Republicans from California. Voters in all of their districts favored Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.
Four of them are running to represent at least part of Orange County: Gil Cisneros, who is seeking to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce of Fullerton; Katie Porter, who is trying to unseat Rep. Mimi Walters of Laguna Beach; Harley Rouda, who’s challenging Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa; and Mike Levin, who’s running for the seat that Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista is giving up.
Obama heaped praise on each of them, as well as T.J. Cox, an engineer hoping to oust Rep. David Valadao of Hanford, and Josh Harder, a former venture capitalist challenging Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock.
“Josh and T.J. may be running in different districts, but they’re running for the same reasons, to make sure every Central Valley kid has the same kind of opportunities that they had,” he said.
Obama also lauded Katie Hill, who is running to bounce Rep. Steve Knight of Palmdale, but was unable to attend the rally.
All the Democrats, Obama said, were reaching out “not just to true-blue, die-hard” party loyalists, but to independents as well.
Republicans, however, cast doubt on the breadth of his influence, even as they acknowledged the tough election climate that the GOP faces under a president as unpopular as Trump.
“I am confident we are going to hold most if not all of those seats in California,” said Jim Brulte, the California GOP chairman. “I’m very comfortable with most of those races.”
In a Fox News interview set to run on Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence said it was disappointing to see Obama break with the tradition of ex-presidents “and become so political, and roll out the same tired arguments that he and liberals have made over the last eight years.”
But Democratic strategists welcomed Obama’s return as the face of the party.
“Obama is a symbol of when government was stable, decent and effective to a lot of people, and it’s not just Democrats,” said Mike Shimpock, a Democratic consultant in Los Angeles. “He could stand there and not say a single word and be effective at this point.”
The Orange County districts are home to many suburban voters with college degrees, one of the groups most put off by Trump’s presidency.
“If you want ground zero for the Trump effect on Republicans in Congress, it’s Orange County,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic consultant.
Obama opened with a lighthearted recollection of a misadventure at nearby Disneyland during his time as an Occidental College student. When cops caught him and his friends smoking after a Kool and the Gang concert, they kicked them out of the park.
“This is a true story, everybody, I was booted from the Magic Kingdom,” he recalled.
Outside the rally, a cluster of Trump supporters protested with bullhorns.
“This is Orange County, this isn’t Rainbow County!” one of them shouted.
Obama fans tried to drown them out by hollering, “Take it back,” a campaign slogan for Democrats vying for House seats.