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‘SEC primary’ could have a lasting effect for Southern voters

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s push to make the South among the first in the nation to vote in the 2016 presidential primaries has landed squarely on the national radar — an eye-opening experience for a region used to being taken for granted.

Now experts say it may even have lasting effects in elections well past next year’s, as potential candidates shift long-term strategies toward the region. Its creators are riffing on the name of the most powerful college football conference in the country. So they have nicknamed it the SEC Primary, a nod to the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference.

“A lot of candidates have taken the South for granted, and it’s long been fragmented in primaries. It hasn’t been as valuable a bloc like it was in the 1980s,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist who has written extensively on presidential primary strategies. “This is going to put the South back in the center, and Georgia would be right in the middle of it.”

The plan involves a March 1 primary, essentially a new Super Tuesday spate of elections for Southeastern states and a few neighbors. The move is all but guaranteed to give the South more influence in choosing presidential nominees, particularly if there are a number of candidates contending for the nod.

Moreover, all parties can participate. Any serious candidate, be they Republican, Democrat or other, will have to pay attention.

And that, supporters said, was the point.

“We’re on the national map, and that’s really what we wanted,” said Kemp, who next week will update his colleagues and brainstorm on how to move ahead with the plan while attending a national conference in Washington. “We wanted the candidates to know this was going to happen: The SEC primary is going to be a happening event. And our voters here will be able to participate in that process.”

Most Southern states have already signaled their support for the move, which has reached beyond traditional Southern borders.

Elections officials in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas have all either confirmed or are working to seal their intent to hold March 1 primaries. So have Oklahoma and Virginia, even though they don’t host SEC schools. Florida has as well, though it may break from the pack and shift its primary even earlier.

“I want the next president of the United States to come to Mississippi,” Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said of the decision. “By having an earlier voice in the decision-making process through an SEC primary, I believe he or she will.”

The idea behind the plan is simple: the earlier the better.

The states that first vet presidential candidates through primaries and caucuses — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — will still hold their place of honor. But Georgia and its fellow SEC primary participants would come soon after — and ahead of a number of others.

That’s a bit different than what happened on Super Tuesday in 2012, when the 10 states voting that day ranged from Georgia to Alaska.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, embracing the obvious football analogy, noted a recent conversation he had with an Iowa politician who said a presidential candidate visiting there has to meet with voters at least eight times to win their support.

It’s the kind of wooing not seen in some core Southern states for years. Places such as Alabama and Georgia more typically see the candidates on quick, blink-and-you-miss-them campaign swings to raise money. Merrill wants his state to get more than fleeting attention.

“We need to try to find a way to get in the game,” Merrill said. “We know we’re not going to be the quarterback. But we could be the holder or the placekicker.”

He likened it to a big-name bowl game between college football teams, played in the national spotlight while interest is high.

“Do you want to have it before the national championship game or after?” Merrill said. “Because if you have it afterward, all eight people who watched it would probably enjoy it, but if it’s all said and done, what need is there for you to have it?”

Already, supporters say they are seeing ripple effects. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a potential GOP candidate who won Georgia’s 2008 primary, visited Georgia last week to meet with voters. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, another potential contender, met with Republican-leaning business leaders and donors last week in Atlanta. And state Republican officials expect a slew of presidential candidates at the party’s May convention in Athens.

It’s not without risks, though.

Candidates could still ignore smaller states within the region and try to divvy up delegates from bigger states, including Texas. States in other regions could also decide to join the fray and move their primary dates earlier, taking focus away from any one area in particular.

That hasn’t happened yet — there are talks of other regional primaries, including a “Big Ten” vote, for later in March — but Kemp and others are mindful of the scenario. None said they were worried.

“The South already is an important player, but sometimes states like Georgia get labeled as only going in one direction,” Gov. Nathan Deal said. “It might give Georgia more influence.”

There is no guarantee how it will turn out.

Decades ago, the South was a formidable gantlet for presidential contenders, who spent time and money in the region appealing to voters. But while a bloc is most effective when it sends a clear message, Southern voters didn’t always agree on a preferred candidate.

Joshua Putnam, an Appalachian State University political scientist who writes an influential blog on presidential strategies, noted what happened in 1988 during that year’s Southern Super Tuesday. Rather than unite behind a nominee, Democratic voters across the region prolonged the contest by splitting votes between Al Gore, Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis.

“The most influence comes through providing a clear, unified decision,” Putnam said. “That is much easier said than done.”

In the interim, the nation has also seen a shift in power.

“The last time a group of Southern politicians tried to do that, Chuck Robb, Al Gore and Bill Clinton created the Southern primary in the early 1980s to try to make Democrats a more mainstream party,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. “Now those offices are held by Republicans and you find Republicans are going to try to have a Southern primary to assert themselves.”

Either way, Kemp is tickled to see his little idea — first announced a year ago without commitments from other states — turn into something so big it could influence the election.

“The main thing, I’m glad for our voters down here,” he said. “This really gives us great momentum.”

Staff writer Daniel Malloy contributed to this article.

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