By Letitia Stein
ATLANTA (Reuters) – Things were not looking too good a year ago for Georgia’s top elections officer as he tried to stitch together a mega-presidential primary in the U.S. South.
Efforts to bring Alabama and Arkansas online had stalled. Tennessee was threatening to defect.
But Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp kept working the phones, arguing that a bloc of Southern states all voting on March 1 was the only way to make U.S. presidential candidates pay attention to the region.
Eventually key state leaders came around and their effort seems to have paid off.
Candidates have campaigned more in the South this election year in an effort to woo a group of states voting early on so-called Super Tuesday than Kemp can recall seeing in any contemporary primary. And the seven states holding contests in the region appear poised to play a pivotal role in selecting the Republican and Democratic nominees for the Nov. 8 race.
“In years past, we’ve been an afterthought,” Kemp said at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta last week. “That’s certainly not the case this year.”
Elections officials nationally are watching how the concurrent races in the South play out on Tuesday, and are talking about possibly replicating the strategy in other parts of the country to win a greater say in the primaries.
Kemp has dubbed the coordinated Southern races that he’s orchestrated the “SEC primary” – or Southeastern Conference primary – after a regional college athletic conference.
“This represents an attempt to introduce primary reform,” said Kay Stimson, spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State, which for years has urged holding regional primaries that would rotate around the nation.
“Brian Kemp took the ball and ran with it,” she added.
It was not easy.
A year ago, Kemp stood in his statehouse office fretting that bills to set the primary date in Alabama and Arkansas were not going to pass. An Alabama state party chair was worried her state would get lost in a big group, he said, but Kemp argued that Alabama would still be better off by voting when it was early enough to matter.
In Arkansas, the bill to change the primary date did not pass until it was included in a special legislative session.
Kemp even feared trouble in Tennessee after his counterpart there said there was a rumor circulating that the “SEC Primary” states were thinking about moving back by a week.
“No,” Kemp replied. “Our coalition is holding together.”
“WAFFLE HOUSE” v. “SEC” PRIMARY
Kemp, 52, a boots-wearing small business owner who drives a Chevrolet Suburban with more than 430,000 miles on it, jokes he could have dubbed his effort the “Waffle House primary,” for a restaurant chain prevalent in the region.
But athletics jumped out as a common passion for the Southern states he helped to bring together: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
Four other states, from Alaska to Vermont, also hold contests to award delegates on Super Tuesday.
Kemp’s plan to concentrate attention on the South did not initially excite Alabama’s John Merrill, who had other priorities as that state’s newly elected elections chief.
But after hearing the then secretary of state from Iowa – which holds the country’s first nominating contest – talk about how voters there would never back a candidate they had not met eight times, he rallied bipartisan support.
“Do you know just how few times anybody in Alabama has ever had the privilege to interact with a presidential candidate on a personal basis, let alone do it more than once?” Merrill said.
Candidates began showing up once the regional primary was in place. A rally for Republican billionaire businessman Donald Trump drew as many as 30,000 people to a football stadium in Mobile, Alabama in August, for example.
The primaries in the politically conservative South got a boost in significance this year from the size and unpredictability of the Republican presidential field.
On the Democratic side, the region’s large concentrations of African-American voters are seen as a test of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s and U.S. Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders’ appeal with a key Democratic voting bloc.
While the South has not seen such a coordinated effort in decades, it is not the first time the states have tried to gang up.
Yet in 1988, when the region almost entirely held primaries on March 8, votes were split among Democratic candidates and the contest left the South to be settled elsewhere. A number of states eventually walked away from the plan.
“The experience in 1988 was not one that the powers-that-be at the time really wanted,” said Josh Putnam, a lecturer in political science at the University of Georgia.
Nonetheless, other regions are eyeing the Southern model. Washington state Secretary of State Kim Wyman failed last year to persuade several neighboring states to coordinate their primaries but plans another push in the next cycle.
“We could have a Pac-12,” she joked, referring to a Pacific Coast-oriented college athletic conference. “Or at least get some of the Western states to go on the same day, so candidates might actually come and visit us and campaign.”
(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Richard Valdmanis)
Photo: Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp speaks with visitors to the state capitol about the “SEC primary” involving a group of southern states voting next month in Atlanta, Georgia February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Letitia Stein