Two years ago, Secretary of State Brian Kemp began his push to set up an “SEC Primary” for a simple reason: He wanted the world to pay more attention to Georgia and the South in an important presidential election year.
“I think for years a lot of people got frustrated that the presidential primary race was over before Georgians ever got to vote,” Kemp said.
Eventually, he was able to convince colleagues in Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas to join Georgia in holding their presidential primaries on March 1.
“Even Hillary Clinton knows that the road to the White House now runs through southern states like Georgia,” Kemp said.
That is not an empty boast. As the primary date draws closer, it looks like voters in Georgia and that handful of Southern states could be the key to determining which candidates are put on the winning path to the nominations.
The final results, however, may not be exactly what Kemp envisioned when he first floated the idea of a regional primary.
The conventional wisdom then was that the Southern states, with voters who tend to be more conservative, could give a campaign boost to a family values conservative like Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum in the Republican primary.
But the political world has turned upside down since early 2014, when Kemp first started working on his grand plan.
Family values candidates like Huckabee and Santorum have already dropped out of the GOP race. It’s a battle now between anti-establishment candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, on the one hand, and establishment candidates Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie.
In the Iowa caucuses, Republican voters clearly preferred the anti-establishment side of the ballot. Cruz, Trump and Ben Carson drew the combined support of 62 percent of the caucus voters. Rubio and the other establishment candidates attracted a combined vote of less than 35 percent.
A recent poll of Georgia’s GOP voters for WSB-TV shows they also prefer that anti-establishment flavor — the combined support for Trump, Cruz and Carson was about 53 percent, compared to less than 30 percent for the establishment candidates (there was also a 15 percent undecided vote).
If that trend holds up through March 1, Deep South voters could well provide the boost that Trump or Cruz needs to continue a winning campaign against the Republican Party establishment.
That would be a rebuke to Republican stalwarts like House Speaker David Ralston (he endorsed Christie), Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (he supports Bush), and U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (he’s a Rubio backer).
On the Democratic side, there have also been momentous changes in the political landscape since Kemp began putting the regional primary together.
Back then, it appeared Hillary Clinton had the inside track to the Democratic nomination, which meant that the votes from a few Southern primaries wouldn’t really matter.
Over the past year, of course, we’ve seen that scenario change significantly. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders came out of left field, literally speaking, and is bolstering his support among Democratic voters, particularly younger ones.
Sanders came within a handful of votes of winning the Iowa caucuses, and the polls give him a lead over Clinton in the New Hampshire primary. If the New Hampshire polls turn out to be even somewhat accurate, then there’s a real race for the Democratic nomination.
As the Sanders threat grows, it could be the Southern voters in the March 1 primaries who rescue Clinton. Sanders has done well against Clinton in states whose populations are overwhelmingly white. Clinton does much better than Sanders among black voters, however, and the Southern states have larger percentages of black voters, along with growing numbers of Latinos.
If Clinton can sweep those states in the SEC Primary, it could re-establish her as the favorite over Sanders when the campaign shifts to other regions.
Kemp is a loyal Republican, so I doubt he assembled a regional primary with the intention of helping Clinton win the Democratic nomination. It would be highly ironic if that turns out to be the result.
That is not Kemp’s fault, of course. As the emergence of Trump and Sanders illustrates, the world changes quickly in politics. If you try to predict what will happen two years down the road, you just might run off the road.
Tom Crawford is the editor of the Georgia Report.