GARY, Ind. — The inside of the arena shook Sunday afternoon as Joe Donnelly invited Barack Obama onto the stage, 10 years to the day the former president was elected president.
Two days out from the midterm elections, the incumbent Democrat locked in a tight Senate race brought the 44th President of the United States to rally voters with him in Northwest Indiana. The event at Gary’s Genesis Convention Center was in Lake County, one of the few solidly blue strongholds of the state that President Trump won by double-digits in 2016.
Lake County was one of four counties out of 92 to vote for Hillary Clinton that year. The rally was aimed at turning out voters who belong to the Democratic base which has defined politics in the area for decades.
“It is because of the efforts of folks like you that we abolished slavery, and we ended the Great Depression, and workers won the right to unionize, and women won the right to vote,” Obama told the crowd of about 7,000 people.
Obama’s appearance came in between two campaign visits by President Trump in the week leading up to Election Day. The president spoke near Indianapolis on Friday and will appear alongside Donnelly’s Republican challenger, Mike Braun, in Fort Wayne on Monday.
Obama told the audience members who booed when he mentioned Republican initiatives to replace their boos with votes. The former president praised Donnelly’s vote to defend the Affordable Care Act, legislation which defined Obama’s tenure.
“In two days, Indiana, you get to vote in what I believe will be the most important election of our lifetimes,” Obama said. “I know politicians always say that, but this time it’s really true.”
The event also featured remarks from Democratic Reps. Pete Visclosky of the 1st District and André Carson, who represents the 7th District, which encompasses Indianapolis.
The crowd hung on to every word and sentence Obama spoke. When Gary mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson noted Obama would be appearing earlier in the programming, the room shook with the stomping of feet in the stands.
Some shrieked when the former president pulled his coat off to demonstrate rolling up his sleeves as a president.
Obama told the audience they didn’t want yes-men all the time, and noted Donnelly’s deviation from the party line when the former president was in office.
“Joe Donnelly and I didn’t agree all the time, but Joe always let me know where he stood and I knew what he believed in,” Obama said. “And that he always was focused on what’s the best thing for the Hoosiers that he served.”
Gary, a city only a short drive from downtown Chicago, is in one of the counties which delivered Obama a victory in the state in 2008. He would lose Indiana in 2012, but still held onto Lake County by a sizable margin.
In 2012, Donnelly won in Lake County by more than a 2-to-1 margin, ultimately winning election by more than a 5-point margin across the whole state. In the same election, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney bested Obama in the state by more than 10 points, despite losing the election.
Obama characterized rhetoric surrounding the group of migrants seeking asylum in the United States as scare tactics. He admitted that politicians on both sides would try to spin issues.
“The people of Lake County gave me the chance to cast the vote to save health care for the people of the United States of America,” Donnelly told the crowd Sunday.
Echoing the sentiments of former vice president Joe Biden's closing remarks when he stumped for Donnelly in Hammond, Indiana, last month, Obama ended his speech with a call to action.
“It starts with you,” Obama said. “Let’s go vote.”