Jeb Bush will be in Athens this weekend for the South Carolina vs. Georgia football game.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush is planning to attend the South Carolina vs. Georgia college football game Saturday in Athens to raise money and get the attention of potential voters in what’s being called the SEC primary on March 1.
The primary has that name because it includes Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and other Southern states.
Republican leaders established it hoping to give the South more say in the 2016 presidential race, and it’s also likely to bring more candidates to football games.
When the candidates arrive, they’ll be forced to navigate bitter rivalries, tradition and, yes, some intoxicated tailgaters.
A Bush Scouting Trip?
At the Elbow Room Sports Bar in Buckhead, Enryc O’Callaghan and Stuart Williams sit with their friends watching a wall of TVs behind the bar.
They’re not here just for Georgia or Georgia Tech. They camp out most fall Saturdays to watch games from around the SEC.
Williams said college football is everything to the South.
“It’s either religion or football in the South. You’re gonna go either way, but all those people that go to church on Sundays, where do they go?” Williams said. ”They run home. And you can buy beer on Sundays now. So you run to Publix, get your beer, and you run home.”
The two men had plenty of beer themselves, and O’Callaghan didn’t hesitate to brag that more than half of all SEC teams are currently ranked in the Top 25.
“The SEC is the dominant force in NCAA Division 1 football,” he said.
Competition among SEC schools is bitter, and that has O’Callaghan skeptical of the motives behind former Florida Gov. Bush’s visit this weekend to Athens for the Georgia-South Carolina game. O’Callaghan thinks Bush will be scouting for the University of Florida.
“Does South Carolina or does Georgia play Florida first?” he asked. “He’s doing a scouting report basically.”
On Saturday, as Bush hopes for attention from SEC fans like O’Callaghan and Williams, he needs to be careful not to choose sides.
“He’s a good politician,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a Republican strategist who helped set up Bush’s visit. “I’m sure he’s going to craft a good answer as to who he’s rooting for. I’m obviously rooting for Georgia, and I hope he is, too, but I also understand the significance of South Carolina.”
Tanenblatt is not talking about where South Carolina sits in the SEC standings. He means all the Gamecock fans voting in that state’s early presidential primary. After Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolinians get to vote a few days before the SEC primary on March 1.
SEC games draw millions of viewers, and candidates like Bush who visit will be hoping to draw those eyes from all Southern states and beyond.
Football As Redemption
Angie Maxwell, a University of Arkansas professor of Southern politics, said in many SEC states nothing brings more people from rural areas together than a college football game.
Maxwell said SEC games also give candidates an opportunity to connect to something more deeply Southern.
She said it started in 1926 when Alabama traveled to California and upset Washington State in the Rose Bowl. The win came soon after the Scopes-Monkey trial, which focused on creation vs. evolution, in Tennessee when Maxwell said the South received loads of national and international attention and was labeled as ignorant, backward and fundamentalist. The Rose Bowl win meant redemption for the South.
“Because of the moment in which it happened, and because the public criticism was so intense,” she said, the region was defensive, and it said “look what we’re good at.”
Maxwell says the attachment to the sport has grown.
When Bush and other candidates visit, they’ll be tapping into that passion, as well as the cash it produces. Bush will hold a fundraiser in downtown Athens before he meets with tailgaters.
“Your elite donors, who are oftentimes elite donors to other things, are usually gathered at those events. I mean capital campaign meetings almost always coincide with football games,” she said.
As the campaign and football seasons continue, we’re likely to see more visits from candidates looking to draw on the lucrative and powerful tradition of SEC football.