Former President Barack Obama was on the campaign trail in Arizona when he was caught out by a heckler in the crowd and swiftly spun it into a broader messaging opportunity about the country’s increasingly toxic political landscape.
It came in the middle of a stump speech for Democrats, Sen. Mark Kelly and Katie Hobbs, who will respectively take on Republica Blake Masters for senator and Republican Kari Lake for governor in next week’s midterm elections.
Republicans want “an economy that’s very good for folks at the very top, but not always so good for ordinary people,” Obama began telling the crowd of around 1,000 in a high school gymnasium in Phoenix on Wednesday.
“Like you, Obama!” a young, male heckler interrupted.
“Are you gonna start yelling?” Obama replied, as the crowd erupted into loud boos in an attempt to drown out the heckler.
“Hold up, hold up, everybody,” Obama said. “Hey, young man, just listen for a second. You know you have to be polite and civil when people are talking, then other people are talking and then you get a chance to talk.”
“Set up your own rally!” the former president quipped. “A lot of people worked hard for this. Come on, man.”
As the event began to come back under hand, Obama urged the crowd to “settle down” and said the incident was akin to the noise drowning out moderate voices in many political debates.
“This is part of what happens in our politics these days. We get distracted,” Obama said.
“You got one person yelling and suddenly everybody’s yelling. You get one tweet that’s stupid and suddenly everybody’s obsessed with the tweet. We can’t fall for that. We have to stay focused,” he said.
He argued that if Republican candidates are successful in the crucial swing state, “democracy as we know it may not survive in Arizona.”
As he continued his speech, Obama spoke of the “peaceful transfer of power” he underwent with Donald Trump when Democrats lost in 2016, contrasting it with Trump’s refusal to concede the 2020 election to Joe Biden. “That’s what America’s supposed to be about. Did we forget that?” Obama said.
He noted that he had spoken to his “friend” Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who was attacked last week at the couple’s home in San Francisco. The perpetrator, identified as a man with extreme political views, shouted “Where is Nancy?” upon arrival to the house. Discussing the attack, Obama criticized “this increasing habit of demonizing political opponents, of just yelling,” he told the crowd.
Obama appeared to echo a speech made earlier that day by President Biden who, also speaking of Pelosi, said there was “no place for voter intimidation or political violence in America, whether it’s directed at Democrats or Republicans … No place, period.”
“You can’t love your country only when you win,” Biden said in his own speech at Washington’s Union Station, warning that candidates who refuse to accept next Tuesday’s results could set the nation on a “path to chaos.”
Millions of voters across the country have already cast their ballots or are planning to go to the polls on Election Day. Officials in Maricopa County, home to metro Phoenix and most of Arizona’s voters, say they are prepared for 250,000 to 350,000 people to vote in person on Tuesday. They project between 1.4 million to 1.9 million voters total.
The state’s early voting system has come under attack by some Republican activists who have spent the last few years casting suspicion on voting by mail and drop-boxes used to return early ballots, stoking skepticism at campaign events and online about the county’s preparedness for large numbers of in-person voters.
Some Arizona voters have complained of intimidation by self-appointed drop-box monitors — some of them armed — prompting a federal judge to set strict new limits.
At a news conference Wednesday, election officials warned there could be lines at polling locations on Election Day but said this shouldn’t be a sign of failing to run elections properly, anticipating that “possible narrative” amid rising tensions.
Separately on Wednesday a federal judge ordered that a group monitoring Arizona ballot drop-boxes for signs of fraud should stay at least 75 feet away from ballot boxes and publicly correct false statements its members have made about Arizona election laws. The ruling also prevents drop-box watchers from taking photos or videos of voters and using the material to spread baseless allegations of electoral fraud.
Republican contenders in Arizona have been fervent in embracing Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
Lake, the GOP’s nominee for governor, has called anyone who believes Biden won by 81 million votes a “conspiracy theorist,” while Masters, the Republican Senate nominee, announced unequivocally in an ad, “I think Trump won in 2020.”
According to a recent Washington Post analysis, a majority of Republican nominees on the ballot this November for the House, Senate and key statewide offices — 291 in total — have denied or questioned the outcome of the last presidential election.