Georgia voters could be among the first to cast ballots in 2016 presidential primary contest

The state’s top elections official is backing a new plan that would make Georgia among the first in the nation to cast ballots in the 2016 presidential primaries, thrusting voters here squarely into the national spotlight.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp said Wednesday his plan would establish a March 1, 2016 primary for Georgia, and that he’s reached out to other Southeastern states to form a new Super Southern Tuesday bloc that would give the region a broader say in the eventual presidential nominee.

Georgia is the first state to publicly express interest in a March 1 primary for the wide-open presidential race.

“If scheduled and implemented, Republicans and Democrats in the South will have a real voice in the nominating process,” said Kemp. “The South has experienced a major increase in population in recent years and this should be reflected in the presidential preference primary process.”

The Republican National Committee voted in January to condense the primary calendar for candidates seeking the 2016 nomination and impose penalties on any that set primaries before March 1. The move ensured that Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina keep their coveted early spots.

Georgia voters also cast ballots in early March in 2012 along with nine other states, but it was far from a regional voting bloc with contests from Vermont to Alaska. Georgia voters sided with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich while elsewhere the eventual nominee Mitt Romney added to his lead.

Kemp’s plan for a regional primary, though, hearkens back to the 1988 in an attempt by Southern Democrats to band together and hold early primaries to choose a more moderate candidate. It backfired as several candidates split the Southern vote and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, among the most liberal candidates in the bunch, eventually emerged as the winner.

Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz said the early voting date in the South could favor an arch-conservative candidate like 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.”

Kemp said he sought to rally his neighbors around the proposal at a recent National Association of Secretaries of State meeting. Randy Evans, a member of the national GOP committee from Georgia, said there has also been behind-the-scenes maneuvering by a cluster of Midwestern states to hold primaries at the same time as states scramble to hold primaries and caucuses over a roughly seven-week stretch.

“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 Evans.

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