In Georgia, Football and Politics Converge

Some fans saw a convergence between a University of Georgia football game and the close race between Senator Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker, a Georgia football hero.

  • Send any friend a story

    As a subscriber, you have “>10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.

    Give this articleGive this articleGive this article

In Georgia, Football and Politics Converge |

Herschel Walker at a rally on Saturday in Athens, Ga., where the University of Georgia football team, ranked third in the country, was playing top-ranked Tennessee.

ATHENS, Ga. — Tammy Mitchell remembers being about 10 years old when she saw a powerful running back named Herschel Walker lead the University of Georgia Bulldogs to a national championship in 1980.

On Saturday, she had both football and politics on her mind as she attended a rally for more than 100 Georgia Republicans and Walker supporters, decked out in red and black Bulldogs paraphernalia, some with their faces painted, as they held signs supporting Mr. Walker’s candidacy for the Senate.

The main event for Georgia fans was college football’s biggest game of the year so far — the battle of the undefeateds, pitting the Bulldogs against the University of Tennessee Volunteers. But it wasn’t the only big draw.

“It’s very surreal,” she said. “I never thought as a little girl that years later this would be happening or he would even be running for Senate,” Ms. Mitchell said while standing next to her husband in a line to meet and take photos with Mr. Walker. She was counting on a win for his team and for Republicans on Tuesday, saying the former could help the latter.

“I think it’s a sign,” she said.

ImageTammy and Harrison Mitchell at a rally for Mr. Walker in Athens, Ga., on Saturday.Credit…Nicole Buchanan for The New York TimesImageMr. Walker with his teammates after they won the National Championship in 1980, defeating Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.Credit…Focus on Sport/Getty Images

People see signs where they want to, but on this Saturday, political vapors emanated from Athens as well as football. And if it was a bit of a stretch to try to make the case that control of the Senate and one of the biggest prizes in the midterms elections could come down to whether Mr. Walker’s team would win again, some saw a convergence of sorts in the football game and the statistically tied race between Mr. Walker and the Democratic incumbent, Senator Raphael Warnock.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.

  • House Democrats: Several moderates elected in 2018 in conservative-leaning districts are at risk of being swept out. That could cost the Democrats their House majority.
  • A Key Constituency: A caricature of the suburban female voter looms large in American politics. But in battleground regions, many voters don’t fit the stereotype.
  • Crime: In the final stretch of the campaigns, politicians are vowing to crack down on crime. But the offices they are running for generally have little power to make a difference.
  • Abortion: The fall of Roe v. Wade seemed to offer Democrats a way of energizing voters and holding ground. Now, many worry that focusing on abortion won’t be enough to carry them to victory.

Neil Malhotra, a professor of political economy at Stanford University, whose studies include the ties between sports and politics, didn’t think the outcome of Saturday’s game would mean more to voters than inflation and crime.

But, he said “emotional stuff” could be meaningful in such a tight race.

“His whole candidacy seems to be specifically based on the fact that he’s a football star,” he said

Mr. Walker did not attend Saturday’s game, according to his campaign aides. But he has made football — and his legacy in the sport — a large part of his message on the stump. From his earliest events, attendees have been a combination of die-hard conservatives and University of Georgia fans who remember when he led the team to victory. His stump speeches are a combination of loose political talking points and sports analogies.

Sporting a University of Georgia polo shirt during his Saturday rally, Mr. Walker opened his stump speech with a nod to his alma mater before diving into a diatribe against Mr. Warnock — and making a prediction of his own.

“Just like the ‘Dawgs are going to win today, that’s what’s going to happen on Tuesday,” Mr. Walker said to cheers.

The crowd at Saturday’s rally was thinner than at Mr. Walker’s prior events. Less than a half-mile away, ESPN’s College GameDay program hosted a live broadcast that attracted hundreds of fans.

David Hancock, 70, said he was in Athens for two reasons: to “see the Dawgs hopefully beat Tennessee and to see Herschel Walker’s speech.”

Mr. Hancock said he planned to support the entire Republican ticket on Tuesday. He brushed off concerns that Mr. Walker’s lack of political experience could be detrimental if he won. Instead, he pointed to the message from an advertisement that Vince Dooley, the University of Georgia football coach who died in late October, cut for Mr. Walker before he died, underlining his former player’s approach to athletics.

“He’s driven. If he falls down, he gets up and he goes forward. That’s what he’s done in his life,” Mr. Hancock said.

By the end of the game, the Bulldogs had defeated the Volunteers, 27-13. Mr. Warnock, in recognition of Mr. Walker’s football legacy, has made advertisements asking Georgia voters to separate his football prowess from his political skills. In one, several University of Georgia alumni explain their admiration for Mr. Walker while denying, in unison, their desire to see him in the U.S. Senate.

In another, Mr. Warnock contrasts their athletic abilities with their political chops.

“If the race between me and my opponent were out here, I can understand why you might choose him,” Mr. Warnock says while running on a track and getting knocked down on a football field. “But this campaign is about who’s ready to represent Georgia.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *