The immediate future of the Democratic party in Georgia could be riding on a hat this week. Or more correctly, a somewhat frumpy touring cap.
On Tuesday, three Democrats will stand for the right to face down Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson, who is loaded with campaign cash and seeking a third term in the U.S. Senate.
Two of those Democrats, John Coyne of Atlanta and Cheryl Copeland of Hiram, lack experience, prominence and cash. Jim Barksdale, a wealthy investment manager and novice politician, lacks only experience and name ID. And time.
Hence the headgear. Late to get off the mark, the Barksdale campaign has rushed to lay out a bare-bones platform that appears to be a mix of Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But ideas and ideals can take weeks to digest.
So Tuesday’s message has boiled down to this: “You know, the guy with the old-fashioned hat,” says former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin in a Barksdale radio spot aimed at key Democratic constituencies.
Use the cap to get him the nomination first, Democratic thinking goes, then Barksdale can be coached into his candidacy for a November contest. That’s time enough for flesh to be added to those bare bones.
For decades, male politicians have been under a no-hats edict. John F. Kennedy started it — he and his lush, wavy hair were the death of the bowler. Michael Dukakis, the failed 1988 Democratic candidate for president, reinforced the ban by looking more than slightly ridiculous in a tank commander’s helmet.
“I’ve heard that,” Barksdale said of the no-hats rule. But he said it does not apply to his cap. “There’s a personality to it. There’s an independence attached to it,” he said.
Donald Trump, this political season’s ultimate rule-breaker, has a comb over that requires a red baseball cap. It has become something of a signature for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Barksdale hopes to pull off something similar.
On his campaign website, he’s asking supporters to pay $100 each for “Barksdale” caps. Rebellion is hidden under each one. “Most people wear baseball caps. But to wear something different is okay,” Barksdale said. “I’m willing to go with something that feels natural to me, even if it’s not what the crowd does.”
As gimmicky as it is, the hat isn’t just key to Barksdale’s Tuesday survival as a newly minted politician. It might also be essential to the legitimacy of the Democratic organization in Georgia, which struggled to produce a candidate willing to take on Isakson — until Barksdale raised his hand.
Even with the Atlanta investment manager in the race, there’s not a ranking Democrat who won’t have Mississippi on the brain come Tuesday night.
Nine months ago, three candidates — two with money — vied for the Democratic nomination for governor of that state. The race was won by the third candidate, a truck driver so unknown that his own mother — who lived with him — didn’t know he was running. Then, with that victory in hand, the truck driver then headed to Pennsylvania with a load of sweet potatoes.
Needless to say, Republican incumbent Phil Bryant was re-elected governor of Mississippi.
If an anti-Trump backlash alters election formulas in the South, as Georgia Democrats hope, their only shot at taking advantage of it starts with a credible U.S. Senate candidate at the top of their ticket, capable of sharing a stage with Hillary Clinton. (Or, if miracles still happen, Bernie Sanders.)
The problem with gimmicks is that they usually aren’t manufactured. They happen.
Barksdale would very much like to see his touring cap achieve the same level of fame as that blue jean jacket worn by David Perdue in his successful 2014 “outsider” campaign for the U.S. Senate.
The problem is that the jean jacket — “the redneck tuxedo,” as one aide termed it — was an accident. Mostly.
“I met with [Perdue] a lot of times. Every time I was with him, he was in one of those really nice suits, with the big collar on his shirt and all,” said Fred Davis, the Hollywood media consultant responsible for putting together TV ads for the candidate, who was selling his business expertise.
Only during shooting hometown scenes in Perry did Perdue shift his dress standards. “He’s wearing jeans that weren’t starched, and legit work boots and that jean jacket,” Davis said, giving some dimension to the “severe guy in the shirt and tie.”
Even then, the jacket wasn’t the focus of attention. The first TV ad of Perdue’s Senate campaign featured his many rivals as a set of bawling babies. That was the main focus. Only the last four seconds of the 30-second spot – the disclaimer in which the candidate accepts responsibility for the ad — featured the candidate in a jean jacket.
This is where the accident happened.
The TV ad was launched in the winter of 2014, when much of Georgia was under a winter storm threat. Schools closed. Businesses shut down. Voters were trapped in their living rooms with their TV sets.
“We got enormous ratings off a typical introduction buy,” said Paul Bennecke, one of Perdue’s top strategists and now executive director of the Republican Governors Association. Further research showed that the babies registered with voters. But so did the denim.
Jacket, Perdue. Perdue, jacket. “Any time you’re dealing with television, you’re trying for unaided recall,” Bennecke said. “It sort of fit him well. It showed that he was against the grain.”
Perdue began taking the jacket to campaign events. It became part of the “selfie” experience with voters. “It was an important piece of the puzzle in people getting to know the real David,” said Davis, the California strategist.
When it comes to campaign symbolism, that may be the difference between the jean jacket and the touring cap.
A wealthy, well-funded Republican had the time to let his luck develop and rise to the top. With no time, the wealthy, self-funding Democrat is having to manufacture his own luck.
But if he wins Tuesday, Barksdale will immediately have to address — for the first time in front of TV cameras — what’s under that cap of his. “What’s riding on it, from my perspective, is do people who haven’t had a voice, get a voice?” the Democratic candidate said.
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