The state’s top elections official wants to make Georgia among the first states in the nation to vote in the 2016 presidential primaries, a move that would thrust voters here squarely into the national spotlight.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp said Wednesday that his plan would involve a March 1 primary for Georgia, and that he’s reached out to other Southeastern states to form a new Super Tuesday bloc for the same date. The move would give the South a broader say in choosing the parties’ nominees, particularly if there are a number of candidates.
Kemp’s plan comes after the Republican National Committee voted to condense the primary calendar for candidates seeking the 2016 presidential election. The move ensured that Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina will keep their early spots. Now Kemp wants to put Georgia in play, too.
In a nod to what many consider the most powerful college football conference in the country, he called the regional proposal an SEC primary. It’s not a done deal, however, and could face competition from other regions in the nation. Some experts said it could also hurt the Republican Party, which dominates the South, by giving an edge to a candidate who would not appeal to other parts of the country.
“This gives us an opportunity to set a date where we can get out front and maneuver around” what other states do, said Kemp, who has found interest in the plan from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. “If we can put the coalition together, this is going to be the place to be.”
Georgia is the first state to publicly express interest in a March 1, 2016, primary. While Democrats have not started crafting a 2016 schedule, the RNC established a newly compressed primary schedule last month that will set up a series of regional primaries or miniature national primaries in March, April and May.
The traditional four early states will be allowed to vote before March 1. The Republican National Convention has been moved from a traditional late-summer slot to June. That leaves 52 states and territories to hold primaries and caucuses over a stretch of about seven weeks.
“I think it’s just now starting to sink in that the net effect of the rules changes we adopted is to necessarily create a series of regional primaries,” said Randy Evans, a national GOP committeeman from Georgia.
Evans said there has been talk behind the scenes of a cluster of Midwestern states holding primaries at the same time, but Kemp has been trying to rally his neighbors around a Southern primary. One disadvantage of the date is that states voting before March 15 under the new RNC rules must award their delegates on a proportional basis, rather than winner-take-all, which would reduce the contests’ impact.
“What we’ve learned from the past two cycles is that while coming out of those carve-out states we have some indication of the outcome, the nomination is rarely decided then,” Evans said. “And the question is who would have the most influence. And so March 1 would give a Southern regional primary a greater impact, but in terms of delegate count it would not be the same.”
Since 1988, Super Tuesday has marked a turn away from the retail politicking of smaller early-voting states to a national race for the parties’ presidential nominations. Though it is traditionally Southern-themed, the 10 states voting on Super Tuesday in 2012 ranged from Georgia to Alaska.
That year, former Georgia GOP Congressman Newt Gingrich won the Peach State and went on to drop out of the race before the Republican National Convention.
The March 1 primary would come as the South has experienced a major increase in population over the past 10 years. Kemp said that growth should be reflected in the presidential primary process.
Kemp’s plan for a regional primary, though, hearkens to 1988, when Southern Democrats attempted to band together and hold early primaries to choose a more moderate candidate. It backfired as the candidates split the vote and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis eventually emerged as the winner.
Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz said the early voting date in the South could favor an archconservative GOP candidate, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and pivot the national debate toward social issues that typically play more prominently in the region.
“I’m not entirely sure if that’s a good thing for the Republican Party as a whole,” said Abramowitz, who studies voting trends. “If you force the candidates to appeal to those socially conservative primary voters, that doesn’t necessarily produce the nominee who is going to be the most electable. That’s the risk — that you veer too far to the right.”
GOP and Democratic leaders in Georgia voiced support for the move, although some cautioned that other regions may try to take the wind out of Kemp’s plan.
“He’s making sure every Georgian’s vote counts and our voices are heard all the way up to the White House,” Georgia Republican Party Chairman John Padgett said of Kemp, who is part of the party’s dominant majority in state leadership positions. “For far too long, Georgia has been nothing more than a fundraising stop for candidates seeking their party’s nomination for President.”
State Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, said “anything that creates more excitement in the state, more attention to voting in the primary, is good.”
But, Henson added, “You worry that a whole lot of states may look at doing the same thing.”