In Georgia, Could a Football Win Help Walker Win as Well?

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Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign has had several tailwinds working for it this year: President Biden’s unpopularity and steady inflation top the list.

And the Georgia Bulldogs aren’t hurting his cause, either. Even serious political analysts acknowledge that the Bulldogs’ strong season — they are undefeated in the powerful S.E.C. so far — may be helping Mr. Walker in his Senate race against Senator Raphael Warnock, by lifting spirits and stirring up nostalgia just in time for the most famous Bulldog ever to ask for votes.

The connection was undeniable on Saturday, when Mr. Walker was the biggest star not in uniform on the day of the biggest college football game of the year, where Georgia beat the University of Tennessee, 27-13.

Tammy Mitchell remembers being about 10 years old when she saw Mr. Walker, then a powerful young running back, 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.

“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 stood 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.

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

Neil Malhotra, a professor of political economy at Stanford University, who has studied the ties between sports and politics, didn’t think the outcome of Saturday’s football 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, whose campaign has had to navigate a slew of stumbles that had nothing to do with football, did not attend Saturday’s football game, according to his campaign aides. But he has made football — and his own legacy in the sport — a large part of his message on the stump. From his earliest events, many attendees have been die-hard conservatives or 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.

And at his Saturday rally, sporting a University of Georgia polo, 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, a 70-year-old Georgia fan, 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 to him if he won. Instead, he pointed to words from an advertisement that Vince Dooley, the former University of Georgia football coach, cut for Mr. Walker before he died in late October, underlining his former player’s approach to athletics.

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

Mr. Warnock made the best of things. In one ad for Mr. Warnock released during the game, three Georgia graduates conveyed their reverence for Mr. Walker’s accomplishments as a college football star, but said that was where it stopped. One was wearing a jersey with Mr. Walker’s No. 34, and another displayed a football autographed by him.

“I’ve always thought Herschel Walker looked perfect up there,” said a man identified in the ad as Clay Bryant, a 1967 Georgia graduate, pointing to newspaper clippings of Mr. Walker on a wall in his home.

“I think he looks good here,” another graduate said, gesturing to her jersey.

“I think he looks great there,” the third one said, sitting next to the football and a copy of Sports Illustrated with Mr. Walker on the cover.

“But Herschel Walker in the U.S. Senate?” the three asked critically in unison.

Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.

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