Southerners push new 'SEC primary' to raise Dixie’s presidential profile

Early presidential primaries in Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Texas – the so-called 'SEC primary' – could boost the South’s prominence in the 2016 election.

David Goldman/AP
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at the Georgia Republican Convention, Friday, May 15, 2015, in Athens, Ga.

The emergence of a new powerhouse primary bloc in the South has already begun to affect the road to the White House, evident by an unusual sight: a phalanx of potential presidents already marching through Georgia.

The appearance of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz at the Georgia GOP Convention in Athens, Ga., on Friday, was indeed a rare treat. Candidates managed to pull $33 million of donations in 2012, according to Federal Election Commission statistics cited by the Associated Press. But presidential hopefuls rarely spend much time or money in the state, since the race usually shakes out by the time Georgians vote.

Yet next year, candidates coming out of the early primary elections in New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina will have to immediately test their messages on voters in Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and Texas, states that make up the so-called “SEC primary” – a nod to the powerful Southern college sports conference – on March 1. Alabama and Arkansas could sign on, as well.

Most immediately, the move will help candidates like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a favorite of evangelicals, who called the new conference a “godsend.” The primary could shape up as a test of the candidates carrying momentum out of the first four primaries. Politico’s James Hohmann writes, “the test in the South will likely pit the winners of the first states against one another.”

More broadly, the creation of the new regional primary “conference” could certainly challenge the Republican trend of nominating moderate (and ultimately unsuccessful) candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney even as the party’s congressional caucus has moved to the right. It’s also true that forcing the campaign to steep in the South so early raises the prospect of giving further momentum to a candidate who might struggle elsewhere in the general election.

However those dynamics play out for a Republican Party desperate to retake the White House, the new regional primary bloc could force candidates – and the country – to take a harder listen to Southerners, whose imprints on the country go far beyond religion, race, culture, and food.

“I don’t want to vote after the nominee is chosen,” Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who came up with the SEC primary idea, said recently, according to Politico. “Other folks in the South feel the same way.”

Later this month, potential contender John Kasich, the Ohio governor, will be in the state. And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are scheduled to attend the conservative RedState Gathering in Atlanta in August.

RedState founder Erick Erickson, a Macon, Ga.-based blogger turned radio host, has used his influential media pulpit to push the Republican Party to stand for traditional families, strong defense, and small government.

Mr. Erickson is a curious purveyor of Southern political power, as the Atlantic’s Molly Ball explained in a profile on Erickson last year:

Erickson sounded almost gleeful as he told me about the Tea Party hating him. He seems to delight in confounding expectations, and in almost every way, he refuses to be pigeonholed: he is a southerner who defines himself by his small-town sensibility, but he spent most of his childhood in Dubai. He speaks for the conservative grass roots, but he pals around with cable-news regulars and Beltway elites. He’s a strict no-compromises ideologue, but during his one foray into elected office, he was a model of bipartisan cooperation.

But the roster for his Gathering is one sign of Southern clout.

It’s no surprise Florida’s Senator Rubio was on hand in Athens on Friday to give a similar stump speech to the ones he’s been giving in Iowa and New Hampshire. He concluded by saying, “I’m looking forward to the SEC primary. You should be excited.”

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