Georgia Secretary of State Brian P. Kemp sat at his state’s GOP convention this month and listened to not one, not two, but three potential presidential contenders. He turned to the guy next to him, who has been involved in state politics for decades, and asked: When was the last time the convention attracted even one major presidential contender?
“He said: ‘Maybe Goldwater?’ ” Kemp recalled, reaching back to the 1964 election.
To Kemp, the arrival of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that Friday was a sign that the South is becoming more relevant in the selection of a Republican nominee.
That is especially true for 2016, as Kemp spearheads an effort to have a half-dozen or more Southern states hold their primaries on March 1 — right on the heels of the first-in-the-nation contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Kemp calls it the “SEC primary,” a nod to the collegiate Southeastern Conference.
Such a primary could be an opportunity for a conservative candidate to rack up delegates early, especially with such a crowded GOP field and an infusion of super PAC money that could keep campaigns alive longer. It also could have a profound effect on the eventual nominee, increasing the odds that candidates take harder-line stands to appeal to conservative Southern voters.
The primary has yet to collect as many states as the celebrated college sports conference, however. Most Southern states hold their presidential primaries in late spring and require legislative action to change the date.
In addition, critics say, the change comes with logistical hurdles and expenses and would give local candidates in down-ballot races less time to launch their campaigns. There is also no promise that a concentration of primaries will produce a rush of visiting politicians or a definitive message from the region.
Georgia is on track for a March 1 primary, as Kemp has the unusual power of being able to set the date himself. Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Virginia are also likely to join. (Yes, Kemp knows that two of those states are not members of the SEC, but just roll with it. Another suggested name: the Waffle House Primary.)
Even if all of the states’ primaries are not on the same day, there is likely to be a flurry of Southern primaries around that time: North Carolina will probably go right before the group in late February, while Louisiana will probably stick with the first Saturday in March, soon after the SEC primary. Powerhouses Texas and Florida, however, are likely to wait until later in March.
Mississippi is likely to opt for a March 8 primary because some lawmakers worried about getting lost in the crowd on March 1. Arkansas lawmakers are headed into a short special session this week and could take up the issue — although some worry that presidential candidates will not visit no matter when the primary is held, given the state’s ties to former governor Mike Huckabee and Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Strategists say a Southern primary has the potential to buoy a more conservative candidate and be a challenge for candidates considered too moderate or too affiliated with the establishment — such as Jeb Bush, who will not denounce the loathed Common Core education standards and has taken a more moderate stance on immigration.
Several Southern states have high rates of poverty and could benefit from an infusion of jobs, although Republicans in the region also like to rail against social welfare programs, and Obamacare is still wildly unpopular. There are worries about terrorism and a desire for an aggressive commander in chief. Evangelical voters are also a major force and are looking for a candidate who will not back down in opposing gay marriage and abortion.
To many Southerners, such views are not to the right of the party — they think those stances should be at the heart of the party.
“I consider myself the base. I don’t consider myself ultra-conservative,” said Lou Ann Cushman, a politically active 65-year-old from Evening Shade, Ark., who attended the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City in the past week.
Hardly anyone there mentioned the SEC primary without prompting. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin — who likes to boast that Obama twice lost all 77 counties in her state — was unaware that a concentrated primary was taking shape for March 1 and that her state is lined up to be part of it.
“When’s our primary?” she asked, as one of her aides rushed to Google it on his phone. “We’re February, aren’t we?”
The would-be candidates who appeared at the conference tailored their pitches for the South. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — who has been known to drop a few “y’alls” into his speeches — called for repealing Obamacare. Cruz, who is strategically targeting the second round of primary states, had been scheduled to headline a Friday-night gala. Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina had Saturday-morning brunch with Republican women. Volunteers for Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, handed out hundreds of copies of a book he wrote.
The biggest SEC primary cheerleader among the candidates thus far is Huckabee, who plans to campaign aggressively in the South.
“I think that idea is a gift from God. I think it was inspired out of heaven,” Huckabee said in an interview with GaPundit.com in January as he promoted his book, “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy.” “It is the Southern states and the Midwestern states that really form the bulk of the presidential genesis in November. . . . If a Republican doesn’t carry the heartland, he’s not going to win.”
But if the South builds an SEC primary, will candidates show up? Or will the attention still go to the biggest states or purplest states?
“No one can really afford a 50-state strategy anymore,” said Angie Maxwell, director of the Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society at the University of Arkansas. “The truth is, the strategists don’t need the South. . . . The Republican Party is going to get the South, no matter who the nominee is. That’s not a danger. I mean, they voted for a millionaire Mormon.”
The last time there was this sort of early Southern primary was 1988, when Democrats still controlled the region. The goal was to boost a moderate Democrat, such as then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who could be more competitive in the general election. Instead, Al Gore won five of the states and Jesse Jackson took the other five. The same could happen for the Republicans in 2016, strategists caution.
But Kemp remains hopeful: “The South is the new heartland of America. The road to the White House should run through the South.”
Katie Zezima contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sen. Ted Cruz headlined a Friday night gala. Cruz was scheduled to attend the gala but canceled after Senate business in Washington ran late.