The huge crowds drawn to college football games on fall Saturdays in Athens and elsewhere across the South are a huge draw in their own right to candidates in an election year. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COMto

On fall Saturdays, football is fair game in Georgia politics

In the cloudy Saturday sky above Athens, the banner towed by the plane read something that would be unspeakable to any self-respecting Bulldog: “@BrianKemp says … Go Vols.”

Kemp, an Athens native and University of Georgia graduate, tried to not let the banner get under his skin, for he is anything but a Tennessee fan. He has steeped his campaign for governor in the hues of deep red and black, lacing his speeches with catchphrases from Georgia coach Kirby Smart.

But the stunt orchestrated by the state Democratic Party was a reminder: Football is fair game in Georgia politics.

Just about every fall Saturday in election season, candidates and campaigns flock to Athens and other college gridirons to capitalize on a Southern tradition. But this year’s undefeated Georgia team has given the contenders for November offices a new opportunity to connect with voters.

Before undefeated Georgia’s inevitable rout of Tennessee, candidates were scattered across Athens, eager to connect with the tens of thousands of voters drawn like a magnet to each Bulldog home game.

At his home in a quiet neighborhood just outside the campus, Democrat John Barrow guided visitors through his family’s 1830s-era house as they sipped cocktails and snacked on finger foods — and heard a thing or two about his campaign for secretary of state.

Across town, Kemp and much of the rest of the GOP statewide ticket stood on a grassy patch of North Campus, delivering short stump speeches to members of the UGA College Republicans and any other fans strolling by on their way to legendary Sanford Stadium.

And overhead, of course, there was the spectacle of the Kemp banner, which briefly derailed the candidate’s message to the audience and was accompanied by a phony Twitter account mocking his platform.

‘Political malpractice’

For hardened college football fans in the South, the sight of candidates hijacking pregame tailgates was nothing new. After all, Kemp was so eager to capitalize on football fandom that he dubbed the March 2016 grouping of votes in a swath of Southern states “the SEC primary.”

Many of the presidential candidates eagerly took the bait — none so much as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who traveled deep into Southern football strongholds four times, with his “SEC selfie tour” making stops at Georgia games in Athens and Knoxville, Tenn.

And four years ago during the last Georgia race for governor, former state Sen. Jason Carter took his campaign bus to Jacksonville, Fla., to wade amid fellow Bulldog devotees before the chaotic Georgia-Florida grudge match.

This year’s nationally watched race for governor between Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams — along with a slew of other competitive statewide races — again offers candidates the juicy backdrop of more than 100,000 captive voters streaming to a game and hanging around downtown Athens.

It’s a strategy that helps humanize politicians while tying them to a popular cause — so long as they’re not picking sides in the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry.

(Case in point: Geoff Duncan, the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor and a former Tech baseball star, made little mention Saturday of his Yellow Jacket roots.)

And it puts throngs of people on a fall Saturday at their fingertips, like a Fourth of July parade every fall Saturday.

“College football games draw big crowds and TV cameras — especially at UGA — and it’s an opportunity for candidates to make an impact on a large number of people,” said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist.

“Candidates want to be identified with popular teams, causes and issues, so it does make sense from a public relations standpoint,” he added. “Also, if you are an alumnus of a place like UGA, it would be political malpractice to fail to capitalize on it.”

‘Keep chopping wood’

That helps explain why Barrow and Kemp — both Athens natives with Georgia diplomas — are eager to build return trips to UGA’s campus into their fall weekend schedules.

With its political memorabilia and artifacts of UGA’s yesteryears, Barrow’s well-appointed house may as well have been an Athens history museum.

On his walls were portraits of Barrow’s descendants stretching back for centuries, many of them former lawmakers and UGA administrators. As he regaled fans with stories about the artifacts throughout the house, his neighbor Judy Masters offered her perspective.

“This is the real John Barrow, and this lets fans see him,” said Masters, a professor and longtime friend of the candidate’s. “Not many people open their hearts and homes. It’s very genuine and authentic.”

Elsewhere on campus, volunteers for Abrams’ campaign and other Democrats were out in force, handing out stickers and campaign flyers at busy tailgating stops advertising her support for expanding Medicaid and her education agenda.

And just a short walk from Sanford Stadium, Kemp was joined by his daughters — and about two dozen other Republican candidates — to urge voters to go to the polls. Nick Lewis, a junior from Macon who helped organize the event, talked about the egalitarian appeal that football offers to the contenders.

“Everyone rich, poor and in between comes to football games,” he said. “It gives the candidates an audience similar to Election Day — and it’s a great way for fans to actually meet the people running. They come right to you.”

He said that shortly after the Democratic-funded plane soared overhead, a stunt that caused some in the audience to chuckle and others to sneer. Attorney General Chris Carr, who took the megaphone soon after the aircraft disappeared, had a different reaction.

“Isn’t it just like out-of-state Democrats to get it wrong?”

As for Kemp, he quickly turned to one of his favorite football aphorisms, this one taken directly from Georgia’s popular coach.

“Do not take this race for granted,” Kemp said. “Do not let up. Keep chopping wood.”

OUR REPORTING

It’s a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Recent AJC stories have examined Kemp’s finances and Abrams’ position while in the state Legislature as a leading collector of per diem. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.

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