Michelle Obama makes her campaign trail debut Monday
She attends two events Monday for Michelle Nunn
Nunn, a Democrat, is seeking the open U.S. Senate seat in Georgia
The first lady has more favorable poll ratings than her husband
President Obama may not be a welcome sight on the campaign trail for Democrats in many key Senate races, but the first lady is a different story.
Michelle Obama made her campaign trail debut Monday in the hotly contested Georgia race for the U.S. Senate. She headlined a fundraiser and a voter registration rally for Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn, among other Democratic candidates up for election in the Peach State.
“The stakes this year couldn’t be higher. If we don’t show up in the polls this November, if we don’t elect leaders in Congress and here in Georgia who put people first instead of fighting for special interests, we know exactly what will happen,” the first lady told an energized crowd, before going on to outline the familiar Democratic attack lines heard in the past two election cycles.
“We will see more folks interfering in women’s private decisions about our health care. We’ll see more folks denying that climate change even exists. We’ll see more votes against equal pay and immigration reform and raising” the minimum wage.
The first lady’s trip began with an event at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta highlighting her Reach Higher initiative, which encourages High School students to pursue higher education. She delivered a speech to students and faculty.
The speech, which lasted less than a half an hour, was briefly interrupted when a female student fainted, but the interruption was a short one. Obama paused, called for a medic to attend to the student, and continued with her remarks.
The Georgia Senate race, an open contest as a result of the retirement of Sen. Saxby Chambliss, is a marquee contest of the 2014 cycle. The race is a sort of “who’s who” of Georgia political families pitting Nunn, a nonprofit CEO and daughter of former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, against Republican candidate David Perdue, a businessman and cousin of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Democrats see the contest as one of their best chances to pick up a Senate seat from Republicans in a midterm cycle where the party is primarily playing defense across the country. Winning that seat would greatly increase the Democrats’ chance of keeping control of the upper chamber.
In a tight political contest in Georgia, Obama appeared to take a do-no-harm approach, staying away from controversial current events, focusing her remarks instead on the importance of registering to vote and turning out at the polls.
“Barack won because record numbers of women and minorities and young people showed up to vote,” she said. “But then, when the midterms come along, too many people, of our folks, just tuned out. See, that’s what happens in the midterms,” the first lady continued. “When you stay home, they win.”
Nunn, who spoke ahead of the first lady at Monday’s event, is the former CEO of the nonpartisan organization Points of Light, a charity whose title is derived from the “thousand points of light” theme that George H.W. Bush spoke about frequently.
She is considered to be one of the Democrats’ two best possibilities for a pickup from the GOP. The other candidate considered to have a solid chance for a seat pick-up is Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
Republican senatorial candidate David Perdue has tied Nunn to the unpopular President Obama, arguing that once in Washington she would support the President’s agenda entirely. A New York Times/CBS poll released on Monday showed Nunn 6 percentage points behind David Perdue, 47% to 41%.
Currently, Democrats hold a five-seat majority in the Senate, and Democrats are up for re-election in seven states that went red in the 2012 presidential election, in addition to facing tough contests in places like Iowa, Michigan, Colorado and New Hampshire. The math is on the GOP’s side, making Georgia’s Senate contest that much more important for the Democratic Party.
In her remarks, the first lady argued that if Republicans were to regain control of the senate in November, gridlock in Washington would get even worse.
“Frankly, if we lose these midterm elections, it’s going to be a whole lot harder to finish what we started,” she said, referring to the Obama administration’s agenda. “Because things will be even worse out of Washington.”
A popular first lady
Although her husband’s popularity is not great – the most recent polling from CNN/ORC International shows his approval rating at 43% – Michelle Obama still enjoys high approval ratings. A CNN poll (PDF) taken in May found that 61% of voters still have a favorable opinion of the first lady.
Obama has mostly stayed away from public events on the campaign trail this cycle, though she has done Democratic fundraisers. It remains to be seen whether these types of appearances will become more frequent in the coming weeks and months ahead of the midterm elections in November.
Obama is not the only high-profile figure to stump for Nunn; Bill Clinton is scheduled to attend a fundraiser for the Democratic candidate this month hosted by singer and Atlanta resident Usher.
Advice to students
Her first stop in Georgia was headlining an event with Education Secretary Arne Duncan at Booker T. Washington High School, which counts Martin Luther King Jr. among its graduates.
The Reach Higher initiative, launched this year, is designed to encourage students to further their education beyond high school, seeking out some form of higher education, with the goal of helping the United States regain the top spot as the country with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
Speaking to a room of high school students, Obama stressed the importance of continuing education beyond high school. “You have to understand that completing high school is not the end but the beginning of your life’s journey,” she said. “It’s just the beginning. In today’s world, in order to compete in an ever-globalizing economy, you’ve got to continue your education after you graduate from high school.”
Obama laid out the various resources that students should utilize when exploring post-high school education options, including studying for the SAT’s, attending college fairs and visiting campuses. “I’m giving you some insights that a lot of rich kids all over the country – they know this stuff, and I want you to know it, too,” she told the students. “Because you have got to go and get your education. You’ve got to. ”
The brief interruption in the first lady’s speech occurred about 12 minutes into her remarks. Obama stopped her speech to check if the child who fainted was OK, and then called for paramedics to come to the student’s aid. The student was accompanied out of the event by paramedics, but was walking on her own, according to CNN photojournalist David Rust, who attended the event.