So, How’d We End Up With an ‘SEC Primary’ Anyway?

by Eliana Johnson

Columbia, S.C. – One of the unique factors that has shaped the Republican primary already is the looming SEC primary on Super Tuesday, March 1. Named after the athletic conference, it got its moniker because a majority of the states holding primaries that day — 7 of 13 — are Southern.  

That makes a big change to the Republican primary calendar, and it has shaped the strategies adopted by the various Republican candidates. In 2012, for example, not only did seven additional contests – Florida, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Arizona, Michigan, and Washington – occur before Super Tuesday, but the states that voted on Super Tuesday were far more geographically diverse.

Ted Cruz made clear early on that he thought the newfound prominence of several conservative, Southern states in the  would redound to his benefit. He made a campaign swing through the South as early as August, and Cruz has gone so far to call the SEC states his “firewall.” When the GOP primary calendar was announced, Mike Huckabee called the SEC primary “a gift from God.” 

So, how did this happen? It unfolded in two parts, one led by a group of Southern secretaries of states, and another led by the Republican National Committee. 

Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state and a former state senator, says he had long been frustrated that in previous years, either New York and California had scheduled their contests on the same day as Georgia’s primary, or that Florida jumped ahead of the Peach State on the calendar. 

“You almost felt like the race was over by the time it got to us,” he says. When he was elected secretary of state in 2010, he began to think about what he could do to bolster Georgia’s influence on the nomination process. Georgia has 76 delegates to award — a lot, but not quite enough to attract an enormous amount of attention on its own. Kemp concluded he would have strength in numbers, and he began lobbying his colleagues, the secretaries of state in Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee to hold their primaries on March 1.

“I felt like if we could get three or four states then really the national media would have to pay attention to us,” Kemp says. The motivation? “I did this because Georgia’s the eighth-largest state in the country, we have the fourth-largest delegate count, and we should be a big part of the process, and quite frankly our people were tired of Iowa and New Hampshire getting all the glory in the presidential primary.” ​

So long as they operate within the rules set by the RNC, states can hold their nominating contests on any day. ”Unlike the Democratic party, we are very good at saying, ‘States rights,’” says Ron Kaufman, an RNC committeeman from Massachusetts. In some states, changing the date of a primary requires legislative action and, indeed, Arkansas and Alabama passed legislation that did so. Mississippi did too, but, stuck in conference committee, it never got a final vote. ​

The Southern states — Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Texas — didn’t get to move up in the process without paying a price. At the RNC’s winter meeting in January 2014, in an effort to shorten the primary process and avoid a drawn-out battle for the nomination (ha, ha), the party had adopted a new set of rules dictating that states voting between March 1 and March 14 would allocate their delegates proportionally, while states holding their contests after that would allocate them all to the winner, giving them greater influence. 

So in exchange for holding their contests early, the Super Tuesday states that are now getting so much attention will allocate their delegates proportionally, which has produced so much of the talk about the delegate count that we’re all hearing about so early in the process. 

I asked Kemp whether he intended, as a byproduct of his efforts, to boost Cruz’s prospects for the nomination. 

“I’ve been kind of accused of helping Cruz, now I’m getting accused that this is helping Trump,” he says. ”Nobody can figure out how these things are going to play out. I think you could have a very interesting dynamic if Rubio runs very strong to Cruz in South Carolina, I think you could make a case that the South is not just a Trump and Cruz race, that there’s another choice there that people are gonna look at.” 

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