Pundits, professors and politicians are furiously producing theories, ideas and opinions of why Brian Kemp and not Stacey Abrams is the next governor of Georgia.
Did the beleaguered Secretary of State get more votes because Donald Trump and Mike Pence came down to Georgia with fire flowing from their fingertips looking for souls to steal?
Was it because Herschel endorsed him? (For folks not from around here who might not understand the significance that would be No. 34 Herschel Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Georgia who once carried the football for a team owned by Trump.)
Or did the personal visits and superstar endorsements on behalf of the Democratic nominee backfire on her and invigorate enthusiasm and votes for her Republican opponent?
Abrams was certainly not short on star power.
Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama endorsed the former state legislator. So did former vice-president Joe Biden and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Obama campaigned in person along with Oprah Winfrey and popular actor Will Ferrell, remembered by many for his musical prowess with the cowbell.
More important than the entertainment luminaries who visited was their checkbooks. Abrams received heavy backing from film-makers, actors and performers. She reportedly collected nearly $5 million in donations from the states of California and New York. Individual donors from the entertainment world read like a who-who’s list from the industry.
Trump and Pence attracted thousands of supporters to an airplane hangar in Macon on the eve of the election. It was supposed to be a Trump 2020 event, designed to get him reelected. But the spotlight fell on Kemp, who was joined in Bibb County by retired Georgia football coach Vince Dooley, an old friend from Athens. Republican stalwarts from around the region turned out in force ignoring the fact that supporters had to stand on their feet for hours.
To many people today Walter F. George is a lake on the Georgia-Alabama line that is good for fishing. But to serious students of Georgia politics, George was a powerful figure in the United States Senate who served the state and the nation for nearly 40 years.
His story is similar to Kemp’s.
In 1938 George was up for reelection. Former Gov. Eugene Talmadge — a magical figure in Georgia politics — opposed the incumbent. U.S. Attorney Lawrence Camp of Atlanta also entered the race, encouraged by none other than the President of the United States.
George had become an adversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal policies. FDR wanted to send him back to Georgia. He despised Talmadge so he became an open supporter of Camp.
That August, Roosevelt was the featured speaker at the graduation ceremony of the University of Georgia.
The president, who spent a lot of time in Warm Springs, talked about how the state had shaped many of his New Deal ideas. Then he took a few presidential shots at George and Talmadge:
“At heart, Georgia shows devotion to the principles of democracy. Georgia, like other states, has occasional lapses; but it really does not believe either in demagoguery or feudalism, even though they are dressed up in democratic clothes.”
From Athens, Roosevelt was taken by car to Barnesville, Ga. where he was to speak at Gordon Military College. There he shared the stage with George, a member of the Senate since 1922, and with Camp. More than 30,000 people showed up wondering if sparks would fly. With George taking notes, Roosevelt did not disappoint the crowd.
“You, the people of Georgia, in the coming senatorial primary…have a perfect right to choose any candidate you wish…but because Georgia has been good enough to call me her adopted son and because for many long years I have regarded Georgia as my ‘other state,’ I feel no hesitation in telling you what I would do if I could vote here next month. . . . What I am about to say will be no news to my old friend…Senator Walter George. . . . Let me make it clear that he is, and I hope will always be, my personal friend. He is beyond question a gentleman and a scholar, but with whom I differ heartily and sincerely on the principles and policies of how the government of the United States ought to be run.”
Then came fighting words:
“I have no hesitation in saying that if I were able to vote in the September primaries in this state, I most assuredly should cast my ballot for Lawrence Camp.”
As Roosevelt was leaving the stage in Barnesville, George stood, shook the president’s hand, and quietly told him that he accepted the challenge. As the senate campaign heated up, George made FDR an issue.
He talked about the president at every stop:
“The people of Georgia do not need to be told by the President of the United States whom to vote for. That is their business. We are capable of managing our affairs without outside help from the President.”
Walter F. George won that election handily. He served the state and the nation until 1957. Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t harmed either. He was in his second term in 1938 and he would lead the country until 1945.
So what was the impact of all of these political heavyweights of today injecting themselves and their influence into Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign between Kemp and Abrams?
President Trump’s politics and his showmanship in Macon came at the right time. His embrace of Kemp was a political anointing that emphasized where the president stood — as if anyone did not know that already.
But the appearances of Obama, Oprah and Ferrell may have had an unexpected impact on a campaign that was too close to call. Support from show business personalities was really not that vital to Abrams. Those people’s visits and endorsements brought very few new Democratic voters into the fold. Those who were supporters of the outspoken legislator were in her corner long before the visitors came.
At the same time, the words and the liberal reputations of these outsiders may have invigorated conservative voters who were not that excited about Kemp — a candidate who had proven to be a lackluster campaigner.
What about President Trump?
Years ago, Sen. Walter F. George said Georgians were capable of managing their own affairs without any outside help from the White House. But 80 years later, help from a sitting president sure didn’t hurt.