Warnock and Walker Graphic

Left: Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock at the UGA Chapel on Oct. 20. 2022 (Photo/Jessica Gratigny; @jgratphoto) 

Right: Herschel Walker, U.S. Senate candidate and former UGA football player, speaks to the College Republicans group on UGA's campus Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2021. (Photo/Sydney Fordice, @sydneyfordicephoto)

Athens hasn’t always been this blue.

In the 1988 presidential election, the races were virtually tied in Clarke County — there were only four more votes for the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, than the Republican candidate, George H. W. Bush. Thirty-two years later in 2020, 70% of Clarke County voted for Joe Biden. 

Trey Hood, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, expects this trend to continue for the 2022 election. Athens is a blue hot spot — an urban area with a large population of college students and minority groups. 

However, despite Clarke County residents being almost guaranteed to vote for the Democratic senator and governor candidates in the upcoming election, both Republican and Democratic candidates make it a habit to visit UGA and Athens to campaign.

Candidate influence

Katy Gates, a sophomore public relations major at UGA, is the social media chair for Dawgs for Warnock, the digital director for Students for Stacey, the director of local government relations for the UGA Student Government Association and the vice president of the College Democrats of Georgia. She said turnout is important for Democrats, and candidates campaign in Athens to rally the votes of young people. 

“Because of the presence of the University of Georgia, there are, for eight months out of the year, a very, very large population of young voters in Athens-Clarke County,” Gates said. “Even though they might not be registered to vote in Athens, odds are a lot of them are in-state and are registered to vote somewhere else in Georgia. So you can reach all of these young voters from all across the state of Georgia on the University of Georgia’s campus.”

Gates clarified that she does not speak on behalf of SGA and that her political opinions are separate from her SGA involvement.

Hood said the fight for the vote is mostly in the suburbs surrounding Atlanta, so a lot of candidates spend their time battling there. Gates said, however, that just because Athens is almost guaranteed to vote blue, that voters shouldn’t be taken for granted. 

“It’s cliche, but really, every vote counts,” Gates said.

With that in mind, it’s important to note that Republican politicians also find themselves at UGA and in Athens. Josh Gregory, chairman of the College Republicans at UGA and a senior finance and political science major, said the College Republicans host conservative candidates to engage directly with students. He said the group intends to offer this space as both a platform for conservative candidates and a place for students to engage with conservative ideas.

Gregory also said it’s a great way for conservative candidates to recruit people to work on their campaigns. 

Despite Athens being a “blue dot in a red sea,” Gregory said UGA isn’t necessarily as liberal as the county it’s located in. He said there are a lot of students who are conservative, moderate or politically disengaged. 

“The University of Georgia and her student body is very split,” Gregory said.

Between the hedges again 

Like the concept behind Democratic candidates coming to UGA to speak with young people, Hood said there are other opportunities for the diverse UGA community to come together ­— football games. 

Both Gov. Brian Kemp and Senatorial candidate Herschel Walker have visited Georgia football games this season, with Walker attending the game and Kemp at a tailgate. Hood said this is a great opportunity for Republican politicians to engage with people from all over the state. 

 “On game weekends, the population of Athens essentially doubles and there are people from all over the state. So you can make contact with all kinds of people in one place, and who doesn’t love Georgia football?” Hood said. 

Football is a rallying cry for fans of Walker. Some Georgia football fans connect Walker’s politics to his football career as a former Georgia running back and Heisman winner, as seen in the “Run Herschel Run” stickers that Walker fans adorn on game days. Despite this, neither Gates nor Gregory see football as one of the most important driving forces in Walker’s campaign besides getting his name out. 

Despite his controversy and limited political experience, Walker got the overwhelming vote of 68% in the primaries, even over Republican Gary Black, who is the Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture. Gates said this is due to Walker’s popularity as a football player, but the influence ends there. 

“I think that Georgians, and especially students, are a lot smarter than sometimes people give them credit for,” Gates said. “And I personally know a lot of students who maybe do lean more conservative and are Republicans … but they are not voting for Herschel Walker because they just don’t think he’s qualified.” 

Gregory agrees that football isn’t as much of an influence in Walker’s political popularity since the primaries, and claims that his popularity with Republicans lies elsewhere. 

“I think that his supporters come from a lot of different places,” Gregory said. “I think that we’re seeing a coalition of conservatives, football fans and people fed up with the Biden administration.” 

Every vote counts

Walker is popular with Georgia football fans, but Clarke County itself remains particularly blue. 

Throughout Georgia, though, the race for the senate seat is incredibly close. As of Tuesday at 7 p.m., Sen. Raphael Warnock is leading over Walker by 1.2%, according to polls from FiveThirtyEight. The Georgia state candidates — Warnock and Walker especially — will need to pull out every vote they can. 

This is why politicians come to Athens and UGA, to rake in every possible last vote through the young people, football fans, Athens locals and UGA students. Hood said the race is as close as it can get.

“You can’t take any voters for granted,” Gates said.