Georgia football is part of political playbook this fall

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Gov. Brian Kemp, Senate hopeful Herschel Walker hope to score votes with some help from Bulldogs this season

ATHENS — One is a Georgia football icon and Heisman Trophy winner whose “34″ jersey is ubiquitous on fall gamedays in the Classic City.

Another is a diehard Bulldog fan who grew up near the University of Georgia’s campus and whose campaigns for public office are steeped in red-and-black lore.

Gov. Brian Kemp and U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, the top two Republicans on the November ballot, are still not campaigning together. But the GOP candidates are both reading from the same playbook when it comes to Georgia football.

Both are trying to channel the excitement and energy around the defending college football champions — and the No. 1 ranked team in the new Associated Press poll after Saturday’s win at home — into November votes with tough contests against gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

Georgia’s season began Sept. 3 with omnipresent reminders from the two Republicans of their Georgia bona fides. Kemp issued a faux order calling for open season on Oregon Ducks, who were quickly vanquished by Georgia. (By the end of the 49-3 rout, he declared the Bulldogs had “bagged their limit.”)

Walker solicited donations alongside his Heisman award and stood on the sidelines of Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game with his former coach Vince Dooley, another UGA icon who was celebrating his 90th birthday.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

And ahead of the team’s home opener on Saturday, Kemp and a handful of other state Republican candidates with Georgia diplomas headlined a tailgate near the UGA Arch that attracted hundreds of fans.

After the governor took selfies with a long line of well-wishers, he confided that a campaign that borrowed maxims like “keep chopping wood” from Kirby Smart in 2018 was once again taking cues from the Georgia coach.

“I really like Kirby’s attitude before the season that we’re not going to be hunted, we’re going to be the hunter,” he said. “We’ve kind of taken that mantra for our campaign.”

‘Smart politics’

Democrats have joined the gridiron action, too, of course.

Abrams, a Spelman College graduate, stumped at a Georgia tailgate during the first game and has traveled to other campuses to rev up young voters. She released a football-themed ad this week promoting her vow to legalize sports betting.

And Warnock, a Morehouse College alumni, rang out a celebratory “go dawgs” – and also offered a shoutout to the beleaguered Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets ahead of their less successful outing at their Chick-fil-A Kickoff game on Labor Day at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Georgia graduates stud the Democratic ballot in November, including Charlie Bailey, the nominee for lieutenant governor who was a Young Democrats leader as an undergraduate and in law school.

Democrats and Republicans alike celebrated Georgia’s title game in Indianapolis, an event that showed the ties of the red-and-black can overcome the divisions between red and blue.

“I hugged so many Republicans at the game and in the days that followed,” said Democratic state Rep. Stacey Evans, a former candidate for governor. “Seeing all the bipartisan love for the Dawgs makes me wish for more things we can rally around. I am committed to looking.”

Credit: Twitter

Credit: Twitter

After all, in the most politically divided state in the nation, who doesn’t want to embrace the banner of a beloved winner while appealing to a captive audience of many younger voters in the process?

It’s also 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. (Though Kemp says even his Yellow Jacket supporters forgive his Bulldog fandom.)

Back in 2014, Democrat Jason Carter brushed off criticism when he took his gubernatorial campaign bus to Jacksonville, Florida, to wade amid fellow Bulldog devotees before the wild Georgia-Florida grudge match.

And in 2015, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign delved deep into Southern football strongholds four times, with an “SEC selfie tour” making stops at Georgia games in Athens and Knoxville, Tennessee.

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

“It’s smart politics. It seems like the entire state bleeds red and black,” said Josh Gregory, president of the UGA College Republicans, after watching Kemp glad-hand Bulldog fans for more than an hour. ”And this shows he’s not some elitist who only spends his time in rooms with millionaires.”

‘The goal line’

Walker plays into the fandom. His campaign hands out “Run Herschel Run” stickers at events and after appearances he often poses for pictures with a long line of supporters who bring memorabilia for him to sign.

He often fields questions at town halls and events about Georgia’s chances for a repeat — the reigning champs are “motivated to do big things,” he said Friday — and smiles through the labored puns of his supporters.

“History says if you give him a football, he’s going to get it across the goal line,” said Bruce Thompson, the GOP nominee for labor commissioner, at an event with Walker on Friday. “Let’s go win another championship, although this one is going to be for the U.S. Senate.”

The political focus on Saturday showdowns also bring pitfalls. In 2018, Democrats needled Kemp by flying a banner above Sanford Stadium claiming he secretly rooted for the Tennessee Volunteers — a slur meant to rattle the Republican on his home turf.

At Saturday’s tailgate, Kemp kept one eye on the sky in case Democrats repeated the prank, quipping to a reporter about when the banner would peak out of the clouds.

Mixing football and politics is a part of Kemp’s campaign philosophy. His first run for public office, when he scored an upset victory over an entrenched Democrat in 2002, relied on help from UGA students who promoted his message on campus and at tailgates.

He’s happy to rattle off standout memories of Georgia victories and his standout players of past and present — he has a soft spot for sophomore wideout Ladd McConkey is a particular favorite — and struggles to say which of his family members are the biggest fans.

And he scoffs at the suggestion that he should distance himself from his alma mater while running a statewide campaign.

“Is there anything else you thought I should do being a candidate from Athens and a graduate from the University of Georgia?”