Southern Regional Primary Redux

Political animals of a certain age will probably remember the saga of the Southern Regional Presidential Primary of 1988. Designed (not, as is often reported, by the DLC, but by the Southern Legislative Conference, a state legislators’ group) to provide a “moderate” and most definitely a regional counterweight to the usual liberal activist tilt of Iowa and New Hampshire, the event instead pretty much reduced the presidential field to Mike Dukakis and Jesse Jackson, with Al Gore hanging on without a great deal of momentum. By 1992 the regional primary had come unglued.

Well, now the idea’s back, but among Republicans, and under a different label: “The SEC Primary.” As Jim Galloway and Greg Bluestein of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported back on November 4, the prime mover is Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (he of the lost 40,000 voter registration applications), and he’s trying to herd six states (GA, AL, AR, LA, MS and TN) to join heavy-weights FL and TX in holding their 2016 primaries on March 1, the first day allowable under the new RNC calendar. The primary calendar guru Josh Putnam thinks LA won’t move from a Saturday primary and AR could be a heavy lift, but otherwise the “SEC” plan is a possibility (I guess Missouri’s just left out, and South Carolina already has a privileged February primary).

As to how an “SEC primary” will affect the Republican nominating process, it’s too early to know. It could create a convenient mopping up moment for a national front-runner on a landscape too large for financially struggling challengers; that’s how it worked out on the GOP side in 1988. But you can see how it could have been a major headache for Mitt Romney in 2012, assuming his conservative opponents had worked out a way to focus on different states. One aspect of the March 1 date is significant: it will be too early under the rules for winner-take-all primaries; in that sense it could help non-frontrunners. At this point, though, it’s not clear whether or if so when there will be any front-runner. As for the favorite-son factor: the vast list of “mentioned” 2016 candidates includes the relatively low total of five from the states we are talking about: two from TX (Cruz and Perry) and two from FL (Bush and Rubio) and one from LA (Bobby Jindal). It’s a pretty good guess that one each from FL and TEX either won’t run or will have dropped out by March 1, and I personally don’t think Bobby Jindal’s going to last long as anything other than a Veep possibility. So theoretically, it could be a pretty big day for somebody. But as Democrats can tell you, don’t be too sure this far in advance who that might be.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.