MILWAUKEE — The stakes of the midterm elections were framed in no uncertain terms by former President Barack Obama on Friday.
“America’s at a crossroads right now,” he told a crowd of thousands in the North Division High School gymnasium. “The health care of millions is on the ballot. Making sure working families get a fair shake is on the ballot. Whether the union movement survives or not is on the ballot. But maybe most of all, the character of our country is on the ballot.”
The former president visited Milwaukee to drum up support for the Democratic ticket, highlighting gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
Obama’s visit came nearly four years to the day after his visit to the same school in support of Mary Burke, the Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Scott Walker in 2014, and two days after President Donald Trump visited central Wisconsin to stump for Walker and Republican Senate candidate Leah Vukmir.
North Division is located in Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code, where Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Mandela Barnes was born. He has highlighted the fact that the area is the city’s poorest zip code and the state’s most incarcerated. Several wards contained within it saw double-digit drop-offs in turnout in presidential elections from 2012 to 2016, according to city data.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett kicked off the afternoon by reminding those in attendance that Trump won Wisconsin by about 23,000 votes — and that about 40,000 fewer people voted in Milwaukee from 2012 to 2016.
According to a Milwaukee Fire Department official, about 3,500 people filled the high school gym, with another 600 in an overflow room.
Evers is locked in a dead-heat race with Walker, while Baldwin leads Vukmir by double digits according to recent polls.
Obama drew a loyal and passionate crowd, several members of which interrupted him during his speech to shout, “I love you.”
“I need you to vote like you want Barack Obama to be your president again,” Barnes urged the crowd.
Health care was the central theme of the speeches delivered by candidates and by Obama himself. The former president noted that Republicans including Walker are campaigning with the promise that they will preserve protections that require insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions while suing the federal government to overturn Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act law, which contains that requirement.
Obama urged voters and reporters to “call it what it is. It’s a lie.”
"Since the election of 2016, we have seen a concerted effort to take away the protections guaranteed in the Affordable Care Act," Baldwin told the crowd. "Health care is on the ballot."
Evers said earlier this week that his first action as governor would be to instruct the state's attorney general to withdraw Wisconsin from the lawsuit.
Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesman Alec Zimmerman accused Democrats of "telling more lies to scare voters while they push a one-size-fits-all takeover of health care that would end private health insurance for millions of Wisconsinites."
According to a Marquette University Law School poll released earlier this month, 50 percent of voters surveyed said they support keeping the Obama-era federal health care policy on the books, while 44 percent support repealing it. Ninety-three percent of voters said the ACA’s requirement that insurance companies cover people with pre-existing conditions is somewhat or very important to them.
Sandra Hull, of Milwaukee, said health care will be one of the most pressing issues on her mind as she casts her ballot. She said she's also looking for candidates with a plan to address mass incarceration, noting that she recently retired after working 31 years as a probation officer.
Hull said she's "super excited" to vote for Evers and Baldwin on Nov. 6.
For Anita Peterson and her daughter, Kimberly, education is a determining factor as they look for candidates to support.
Anita said she still wants to hear more about Evers' plans for Milwaukee's parental choice program. Nearly 28,000 students use the program to attend private schools with a taxpayer-funded voucher. As an administrator at one of those private schools, Peterson said she can see the difference it makes for students to have that option.
"I see the students every day, I see their success every day," she said.
Evers has said he would freeze enrollment in all of the state's voucher programs and eventually phase them out unless major changes are approved by the Legislature.
Still, Peterson said when asked if she's excited to vote, she's "excited about change."
That answer echoes the argument Evers and Barnes have repeated to voters throughout the campaign: "It's time for a change."
"Holy mackerel, folks," Evers told the crowd. "We've had enough of Scott Walker."
Obama pleaded with the crowd to not let themselves become cynical or think their votes don't matter.
"One election won’t fix everything … but if you vote, things will get better. If you vote in this election, Wisconsin, it will be a start. You’ve got to get started and then just keep on going," Obama said. "The biggest threat to our democracy is our own indifference."