Georgia candidates seeking voters see gridiron as a golden opportunity

The University of Georgia’s epic season has captured the hearts of football fans — and a new crop of political candidates hungry for their votes.

Like they do every football season, contenders are holding tailgates outside the state's legendary stadium. But the undefeated Bulldogs and their No. 1 ranking — and the trove of potential supporters who pack the stands every Saturday — have drawn candidates to Athens like dogs to a fire hydrant.

At Saturday’s game against South Carolina, two of the leading Republican contenders held dueling events a short walk from each other: There was Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle at the Myers Quad, tossing footballs with tailgating fans. Across campus, Secretary of State Brian Kemp and his family handed out campaign swag to throngs streaming toward Sanford Stadium.

This is no shock to college football fans in the South used to politicians looking to hijack their pregame festivities. After all, fervent football fandom gave rise to last year’s nickname for the bloc of mostly Southern states that banded together to hold their parties’ presidential vote on the same March day: the SEC primary.

In the run-up to that contest, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump waded through crowds of fans to toss back a few beers and sample barbecue, while Carly Fiorina dodged protesters during her trip to a game. And Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor, traveled deep into SEC country four times, including trips to Georgia games in Athens and Knoxville, Tenn.

(In Athens, Bush wore neutral colors ahead of a game against South Carolina and spent more than an hour taking selfies with students and supporters waiting to snap pictures with him. He dubbed it his “SEC Selfie Tour.”)

Georgia gubernatorial candidates have long leveraged the gridiron for political purposes, too.

In the 2014 race for governor, Democrat Jason Carter trekked to Jacksonville, Fla., days before the vote to campaign amid the tailgaters before the annual Georgia-Florida grudge match. And he and Gov. Nathan Deal, his GOP rival, slammed the National Collegiate Athletic Association for suspending star Bulldog running back Todd Gurley and fired off #FreeGurley tweets that captured national attention.

This time around, the contenders for Deal’s job are starting early.

Former state Rep. Stacey Evans, a Georgia graduate, was in Athens in September to watch the Bulldogs overwhelm Tennessee in Knoxville and to attend the campaign kickoff for Jonathan Wallace, a state House candidate running for a conservative-leaning district based in nearby Watkinsville.

Her Democratic rival, former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, attended homecoming events last month at the Atlanta University Center and plans more events tied to football games over the next year. And two of her supporters offered fans her flyers - and a chance to escape the heat under a shady tent - at Saturday’s Georgia game.

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. And it puts a ready audience of potential supporters at their fingertips.

A few decades ago, Georgia candidates would throw barbecues and fish fries to entice crowds, but these days the promise of a free meal isn’t as tempting. That’s where football games — and the allure of throngs of people on a fall Saturday — proves irresistible.

“You know there’s going to be thousands of people already there. You know you’ll be able to energize your volunteers. And you know you’ll have a chance to reach a wider audience,” said Charles Bullock, a UGA political scientist who has written extensively about Southern politics. “You don’t have to drum up the crowd — all you have to do is parachute in.”

At Kemp’s event, his top campaign staff positioned themselves in a stone’s throw from the stadium, serving up steaming hot dogs and ice-cold soft drinks to sweltering fans. His mother and daughter made for an efficient tandem, cajoling passers-by to wear his stickers on their way to the game. So did a dozen or so other volunteers.

“I was already going to the game anyways, and I’d do whatever I can to help Brian out,” said Joshua Alexander, a high school senior who joined the Kemp crew. “People are taking these stickers like crazy.”

Over at Myers Quad, Cagle’s campaign operation splayed out over two billowing tents that housed plates full of cookies, snacks and a rumbling generator hooked up to a flat-screen TV. A few steps away, fans at a particularly raucous party held by a group of college friends took turns being hoisted over kegs.

The lieutenant governor made a grand entrance, tossing a spiraling football with fans who recognized him as his entourage snaked through the packed crowd. Once he got to the tent, he greeted supporters who have known him for years - and students who wondered about this politician in their midst.

“Are you on the Democratic ticket or Republican ticket?” asked one.

“I’m a Republican,” Cagle responded with a laugh.

“Then I’m taking all your stickers,” came the student’s answer.