Georgia: 2016's New Campaign Battleground

White House hopefuls are paying much closer attention to Georgia, thanks to its central role in the burgeoning Southern regional primary set for March 1.

Georgia is usually an afterthought when it comes to presidential primary politics. Lacking the prominent position on the calendar of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and the fertile fundraising ground of New York, California, and Texas, most past candidates have largely bypassed Georgia as they sketched out their paths to the nomination.

This time around, White House hopefuls are paying much closer attention to Georgia, thanks to its central role in the burgeoning Southern regional primary—or the "SEC primary," as its boosters call it—on March 1.

Georgia has by no means achieved the same level of clout as the traditional four early-voting states, where candidates must notch victories to build momentum. But as the second-largest state (behind Texas) slated to hold its primary on the first Tuesday in March—the earliest date allowed under national party rules—Georgia has a clout that the crowded field of 2016 Republican presidential contenders can no longer afford to ignore.

"Look, we're realistic down here. We know they've got to deal with Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada," said Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the architect of the primary. "But we're going to be the next stop. So people have got to start thinking about how they're going to play that."

After feeling neglected in recent cycles, Georgia and a handful of other Southern states decided to band together and hold their primary elections on the same day in 2016, hoping to have a greater collective say in determining both parties' presidential nominees than they would have had on their own. Georgia's heightened influence will be on display Friday when three Republican presidential aspirants—Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio—swing by to address activists at the state GOP convention.

Georgia Republicans say they are thrilled with the turnout for this year's convention, but maintain that even more presidential hopefuls would have attended if it weren't for two other high-profile events taking place this week. Four GOP contenders are speaking at the Republican National Committee's spring meeting, which takes place May 13-15 in Scottsdale, Arizona, while a total of ten presidential prospects are heading to Iowa on Saturday for the state GOP's annual Lincoln Dinner.

"Several years ago, presidential hopefuls would not even answer an email or a phone call about coming down to our convention," said Ryan Mahoney, the communications director for the Georgia Republican Party. "And now it's kind of the hot-ticket item that people want to come to."

Friday's trip will not be the first to Georgia for Cruz, Christie or Rubio. All three attended the American Enterprise Institute's forum in Sea Island in early March. Christie also paid a visit to the state Capitol during that trip. And Rubio held a fundraiser in Atlanta in mid-January.

Ten other Republican presidential hopefuls have traveled to Georgia as well this year to meet with the state's top donors, lawmakers and activists. None have visited more often than the winner of the 2008 Georgia Republican primary, Mike Huckabee, who has made four trips to the state in 2015. Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal have each visited the state twice since January. And Ohio Gov. John Kasich is scheduled to make his inaugural trek to Georgia this month.

Aside from its new position on the primary calendar, Georgia also has become a popular spot for politicians to raise money, which Republicans say can be attributed in large part to the state's growing business community. In 2014, Georgia was home to 17 Fortune 500 companies, the 11th-most of any state in the country and the most of any southern state besides Texas. Christie, Cruz, and Rubio are holding fundraisers while they're in Georgia Friday for the convention.

"We're clearly not New York," said Eric Tanenblatt, who was a national finance cochair for Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign and now is helping Bush's fundraising efforts. But Tananblatt added that "because of the fact that we're a conservative Republican state and that we've got such a large business sector here, we're becoming a place where candidates like to come to raise money."

GOP presidential contenders also are beginning to secure the support of the state's leading fundraisers, operatives, and lawmakers. While Taneneblatt is aiding Bush, another one of the state's top money men, Jim Rubright, has signed on with Rubio. Joel McElhannon, a prominent Republican strategist in the state, is working for a super PAC supporting Rubio's candidacy. And two Atlanta residents, investor David Panton and activist Maria Strollo Zack, are heavily involved in one of the four pro-Cruz super PACs.

Meanwhile, Christie has relied on Georgia state House Speaker David Ralston to make inroads in the state. Ralston and a group of state legislators traveled to New Jersey in January to have dinner with the governor. Another member of the Georgia House, Earl Ehrhart, sent a letter to his colleagues earlier this month in an attempt to rally support for Scott Walker.

Hillary Clinton, however, is the only presidential candidate with a paid staff member in Georgia. The former secretary of State hired Ramone Rushing, who worked on Michelle Nunn's failed 2014 Senate campaign, to organize volunteers in the state. Republicans don't expect their party's candidates to fully form their teams in Georgia or any Southern state until the fall, after their campaigns in the four early-voting states are up and running.

But, according to Randy Evans, a Republican National Committeeman from Georgia who advised Newt Gingrich's 2012 presidential campaign, "You'd better start laying the groundwork now."

Georgia Republicans are sure to get plenty of face time with the 2016 slate of White House contenders in the coming months. Carly Fiorina, Rick Perry, Bush, Jindal, and Walker already have booked trips to Atlanta for the annual gathering hosted by RedState, a conservative website run by Erick Erickson, that will take place Aug. 6-9—the same weekend as the Iowa Straw Poll.