South Seeks Greater Sway in 2016 With Regional Primary

DECATUR, GA - NOVEMBER 4: Voters turn out to cast their ballots for the midterm election at First Christian Church of Decatur on November 4, 2014 in Decatur, Georgia. Georgia Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn is running in a tight race against Republican U.S. Senate candidate David Perdue. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images) (National Journal)

In past presidential elections, states have fought to move their primaries earlier and earlier, hoping to have a greater influence on the nomination process. But with new scheduling rules on the GOP side ahead of a wide-open race in 2016, some Southern states are trying a different strategy: joining forces.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp is moving forward with a plan to coordinate the state's 2016 presidential primary with five other states—Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee—in an effort to give national Republicans' bedrock region more say in whom their party (and Democrats, too) nominates to run for the White House.

"It's an opportunity to have a great deal of say about who the nominee is. I think having South Carolina and a Southern regional primary back-to-back, or in close proximity, is a pretty big one-two punch," said Randy Evans, a Republican National Committee committeeman from Georgia who served as a senior adviser to Newt Gingrich's 2012 presidential campaign.

In recent elections, some states ignored the wishes of party leaders and set their presidential primaries earlier in the year to compete with traditional early-voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada for clout. In 2012, for instance, Florida scheduled its primary for Jan. 31, forcing Iowa to move its caucuses all the way up to Jan. 3.

As a result, though, the RNC stripped Florida of half of its delegates. And if a state tries a similar move in 2016, the punishment will be much harsher. Depending on the size of the state, its delegates would either be reduced to nine or one-third of its total delegation, according to new rules the RNC approved at the beginning of the year.

"Somebody would be really foolish to break the rules now," Kemp said. For him, that meant finding a new way to work within the rules to amplify Georgia's influence on choosing the next president.

Last week, Kemp told the five other secretaries of state he's working with in establishing a so-called "SEC" regional primary (named after the powerhouse college sports conference) that he intends to schedule Georgia's presidential primary for March 1, 2016—an authority he was granted by the state Legislature in 2011. Tennessee has already set March 1 as its primary day, while the other four states still need to act through their respective legislatures to do the same. Primaries in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi are currently slated for later in March, while Arkansas's is set for May.

Two other Southern states, Texas and Florida, are already planning to hold their primaries March 1. This is the earliest date anyone outside the usual four early-voting states can hold its presidential primary in 2016 without penalty under the new RNC rules. However, a state that sets its primary during the first two weeks of March must award its delegates to candidates proportionally, as opposed to a winner-take-all system, meaning there is still a benefit for states that choose to hold their primaries later on in the cycle.

"It definitely plays to the weaker candidates' benefit for a bunch of states to go load up and go during the period of time that's proportional," one Southern GOP strategist says. "It seems like the South could make a much bigger statement if it went on March 15."

But Kemp and his allies ultimately decided that bringing together a group of states that have been largely ignored in recent nomination battles and holding a primary as early as possible is the best way to get the attention of White House hopefuls.

"The next president of the United States—Democrat or Republican—will have come and debated the issues here and spoken to our people about the things we think are important, and we'll have a bigger voice," said Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.

Even if Kemp's plan goes through, that cohort of Southern states may not have March 1 all to themselves. Kemp acknowledged that if other states outside of the South decide to set their primaries for March 1, it could blunt the impact of his plan. By bringing a coalition of states together this early, he hopes that he can deter others from doing so.

There's also no guarantee the region will speak with one voice. Appalachian State University political science professor Josh Putnam, who writes the election-calendar-focused blog FrontloadingHQ, noted that Democrats attempted a similar strategy in 1988, when nearly all the Southern states held their primary on the same day in March in hopes of providing a boost to a more conservative candidate. But instead of coalescing around one contender, the Southern states split their votes among three candidates: Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson.

"That does serve as something of a cautionary tale for what Republicans across the South are seeking to do in 2016," Putnam said. "They're seeking to have a similar level of influence, but the '88 example points out the possibility of unintended consequences popping up."

Either way, Kemp said he intends to further discuss the plan at a February meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State meeting in Washington.