How the GOP's 'SEC primary' could backfire come 2016

It seemed a fine idea at the time. And maybe it is, if you like the idea of Donald Trump as the GOP nominee.

When Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp proposed the so-called “SEC primary,” with as many Southern states as possible holding their presidential primaries on the same date, he argued that it would give the South more influence and ensure that presidential candidates pay more attention to the region. With Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia joining Georgia in holding March 1 primaries, and with GOP candidates flocking to the region, that part of the plan appears to be working.

“It is now clear that the road to the White House runs through the South,” Kemp proudly proclaimed, with Randy Evans, a Republican National Committee member from Atlanta, predicting that this new Super Tuesday could actually end up deciding the GOP nominee.

Think about that for a moment. The goal of the SEC primary is to help to produce a GOP candidate more amenable to the South and more attuned to Southern conservative issues. Gun control, "religious liberty," things like that. OK, but the South is a region that the party already dominates anyway. If the GOP wants to elect a president, it needs a candidate who can win swing states, not add another five percentage points to the margin in states it would already win easily.

In short, to the degree the SEC primary is effective, it makes it less likely that Republicans will get a Mitt Romney or John McCain as its nominee. I know that’s an outcome that many in the GOP base would applaud, but in practical terms they’re choosing emotional gratification over smart political strategy.

For example, three 2016 “SEC primary” states held competitive primaries in 2012 before the GOP nomination was decided. Newt Gingrich won Georgia easily; Rick Santorum won Alabama and Tennessee easily. If your goal is to give candidates like that a boost toward the GOP nomination, I’m not sure you’ve helped your party’s chances of winning come November. The SEC title is not the national title.

Creation of the SEC primary dovetails with a separate effort by the Republican National Committee to significantly compress its primary schedule. In the aftermath of Romney’s loss, RNC officials came to the conclusion that he had been hurt by an extended primary fight. He didn’t clinch until the end of May, and the RNC wanted the issue settled more quickly.

Over the protests of conservatives, they also wanted to “rig” the system in favor of an establishment candidate. Compressing the schedule meant candidates had to compete in a large number of states in a very short time frame, giving an advantage to someone who had a lot of money and could buy ads in all those states, all at once.**

As it turns out, though, it might also favor a candidate with high name recognition who can generate tons of free national media.

As a result of that compression, in the short two-week period between March 1 and March 15, the Republican Party will hold primaries or caucuses in a remarkable 25 states, compared to 16 states in that same period in 2012. The "SEC primary" will play a critical role in that period, electing more than a thousand delegates to the GOP convention. Given the volatility of the GOP electorate, it’s easy to imagine a candidate coming out of those early states with so much momentum that by March 15, the nominee is all but elected, before the GOP really has time to think it over.


** Mike Murphy, head of the Jeb Bush SuperPAC Right to Rise, explained it candidly in a recent interview with Bloomberg:

"We see Feb. 1 to March 15, 45 days, as our period to seize the nomination and get in front—and there are a lot of states and a lot of congressional districts and a lot of targeting to that. One of the reasons we've worked so hard and Jeb, frankly, has inspired so many people to donate to us is so we have the resources to pursue that campaign. Most of these other guys are all running on spec. We're at a point now where we're significantly funded for those 45 days, cash in the bank today. Nobody else is in that situation in this race. Nobody's close."