A Georgia-led ‘SEC primary’ is becoming a reality

Deal: support but no endorsement

Gov. Nathan Deal won’t be endorsing any single candidate in the growing crowd of Republicans running for president in 2016. But he will be supporting a quartet of GOPers who showed him some love during his past two campaigns.

That means Deal will urge his backers to rally behind the four former and current governors who supported his bids in 2010 and 2014: Jeb Bush of Florida, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

“The governor’s loyalty lies with those who worked tirelessly on his behalf, and he intends to do the same for them if asked,” said Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff.

What was once a gleam in the eye of Georgia’s top elections official has become reality in recent months, as most of the South has aligned for a blockbuster March 1, 2016, presidential primary.

Voters in Georgia, where Secretary of State Brian Kemp has been the loudest cheerleader for the college athletics-themed “SEC primary,” will be joined by those in Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia for the regional vote that could shape what looks to be a drawn-out Republican race. North Carolina also could still move in.

Presidential hopefuls are taking notice, particularly on a Republican side that seems to gain a candidate per day. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is making four stops in Georgia this holiday weekend. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was among three candidates who showed up in Athens in May for the Georgia GOP convention.

“I’m excited about the SEC primary and being an active participant,” Rubio told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at that meeting. “And you should be excited, too. You’re going to get a lot of people visiting.”

It remains to be seen how much Georgia will benefit from its place at the center of the primary. Josh Putnam, an Appalachian State University political scientist, said the increased visits are not related to Georgia’s placement on the calendar, which is unchanged from 2012.

"You've got 20 candidates, and that means more visits," said Putnam, who publishes the primary-tracking website Frontloading HQ. "It means candidates have to be a bit more strategic about where they're spending their time, strategically relative to their opponents."

The Democratic field is downright spare by comparison. Hillary Clinton has only come to Georgia for a closed-door fundraiser, and her foes have spent most of their time in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Those are the states picked by the major parties to hold their primaries and caucuses first.

The rest must be held no earlier than March 1 in order to conform with party rules. But several states in past years have moved up their votes in order to bathe in the attention from candidates and media, even if it meant getting stripped of convention delegates by the national party.

North Carolina now is slated to vote in February, but it is likely to move back. A line-jumper is always possible in the coming months.

‘It was tarmac attention’

Some political veterans aren’t so sure whether the bloc vote will benefit Georgia.

Bobby Kahn, a longtime fixture in Democratic politics who once headed the state party, recalled the 1984 primary when Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts and Rhode Island all joined together to hold a March 13 primary.

At first, it seemed like it was working. Each of the leading Democratic candidates gathered at the party’s main fundraiser in 1983, where attendees wore buttons proclaiming “The South is the Key.” But the region didn’t vote as a bloc — Georgia supported Walter Mondale while Florida picked Gary Hart — and Kahn said it did little to boost Georgia’s reputation.

“We got a lot of attention, but it was tarmac attention,” Kahn said. “They’d come and do a press conference, maybe a fundraiser, and then get out.”

Atlanta’s media market, by far the state’s largest, is expensive compared with smaller states also holding votes on the same day. That poses a problem for money-conscious campaigns and Super PACs.

“The more states that hold votes on the same day, the harder it becomes for Georgia to be a significant factor for a long period of time,” said Kahn, who owns a Marietta-based political media-buying company. “Georgia is such an expensive state. You’ll see a well-funded candidate playing here for a couple of weeks, but you won’t see 14 candidates in here going to people’s homes.”

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill remembers that same 1984 primary differently.

He was a student at the University of Alabama at the time, and he recalls a sudden spurt of candidates trucking through Tuscaloosa and other oft-ignored parts of the state. That’s one of the main reasons he’s pushed his state to hold its vote March 1.

“There’s quite a difference of expectations between Iowans and folks in Alabama and Georgia. And that needs to change,” Merrill said. “We want to make sure we have the chance to interact with candidates. Because if you don’t get to interact with a Mitt Romney, you only know what you’re seeing in the national media. And your level of enthusiasm isn’t going to be nearly as high.”

An ‘SE primary?’

Kemp, who urged Alabama to join the fold months ago, said it’s become clear that “the road to the White House now leads through Georgia.” But while the name honoring the Southeastern Conference has caught on, it’s not quite accurate.

March 1 includes a slew of non-Southern interlopers, from Massachusetts to Minnesota. The number of non-SEC states will likely outnumber the SEC states. It might be called the “SE primary” now, Kemp quipped, even though that wouldn’t fit the bill.

“It’s coming together. We’re going to be an important state in the primary,” Kemp said in an interview. “Just look at the visits we’re already getting. And I think we’ll continue to see even more of that.”

Technically, Georgia isn’t in the SEC primary yet. While Kemp has said he is “100 percent” certain Georgia will hold its primary on March 1, he has yet to make it official.

It will be the first day on the calendar with multiple states voting, playing to the advantage of the candidates with the most money and likely producing a split result. Texas will be by far the biggest prize.

“Compared to four years ago, the big difference is Texas is kind of the anchor weight,” Putnam said. “That’s a significant group of delegates that were far later in the calendar last time.”

A wide-open Georgia race

The Republican race figures to be wide open in Georgia. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won here in 2008; the winner in 2012, home-state favorite Newt Gingrich, has ruled out another run. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has visited several times to raise money and court influential Republicans, as have Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

Cruz’s team sees the constellation of states playing into his hands. He announced a chairman in Texas and leadership team in North Carolina, steps the other campaigns have yet to take in the SEC states, though U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has an office in Austin, Texas.

Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler said the strategy of “living in Iowa” to win there and build momentum will not work.

“There’s literally no time to win it, wait for the money and then get organized in the March 1 states,” Tyler said. “So the advantage will go to the candidates who … have the money to compete in those states and … have the money to be organized in those states.”

The money accumulates faster in the age of the unlimited-donation Super PAC, which has allowed wealthy donors to prop up candidates — a trend that figures to accelerate.

“A chicken in every pot and a billionaire for every candidate; to me, that’s the slogan of this election,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

The number of candidates with money will extend the Republican contest, Sabato said, as will the fact that all the March 1 states must award delegates on a proportional basis, rather than winner-take-all. The focus will be on the media coverage and fundraising momentum that state victories can bring.

“Nobody’s going to win a giant advantage among delegates on March 1,” Sabato said. “It’s not possible.”