By Hastings Wyman –
Call it the Southeastern Conference (SEC) primary after the college athletic association or the Sweet Tea primary, which is what the Washington Post dubs it, or the Confederate primary, as one liberal wag puts it. Call it what you will, it could well be the make or break event in next year’s primary season. On Super Tuesday on March 1, voters in eight Southern states will cast ballots in the 2016 presidential nominating contest. Dixie voters won’t be alone – Massachusetts and Vermont also vote that date and Colorado and Minnesota will hold caucuses. But the major focus will be on the South, in the Republican primaries almost certainly and probably the Democratic ones as well.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp initiated the idea of a Southern-wide primary and successfully brought eight states together, hoping to increase the region’s clout in the nominating process. The eight are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas – the nation’s second largest state – and Virginia.
The conventional wisdom is that holding this large group of primaries that early will give an advantage to home state candidates on the Republican side, Mike Huckabee in Arkansas, Ted Cruz or Rick Perry in Texas or Jim Gilmore in Virginia. But that isn’t likely to happen, at least not across the board.
For starters, polls of Republican voters have already shown that an outsider – in this case, New Yorker Donald Trump – is leading the Southern-based candidates, even in their home states. Whether Trump will still be the major force he is today remains to be seen. Given his personal wealth, he can stay in the race as long as he likes. Nor is it clear what it would take to get him out of the race, but his candidacy could conceivably implode in response to some unforeseeable event. Then, for example, if Carly Fiorina or John Kasich got what George H. W. Bush called “the Big Mo” [mentum] coming out of New Hampshire, it is not out of the question that either the Californian or Ohioan could then run a strong race in the South.
Moreover, not only will Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada hold either caucuses or a primary in February, but on February 20, just nine days before Dixie’s eight-state primaries, South Carolina will hold its Republican Primary, which could influence the March 1 outcome.
Moreover, it is probable that some of the candidates will have dropped out by Super Tuesday. Not only money, but also a candidate’s continuing popularity, strongly influence whether a presidential candidate can stay the course. If Cruz’s prospects have weakened considerably before Super Tuesday, then Texas might be wide open to another contender, possibly Bush or even Rand Paul, both of whom have strong ties to the Lone Star State.
In any case, the new primary grouping’s influence is already being felt. Ted Cruz recently concluded a seven-day tour of the region, from South Carolina to Oklahoma. Moreover, he’s putting together an organization that includes some of the South’s hard-right heavyweights, such as state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) in Mississippi, who lost a hard-fought primary against US Sen. Thad Cochran (R) last year. And in Alabama, despite Gov. Robert Bentley’s (R) endorsement of Kasich, 30,000 folks, plus some 100 from the media, showed up in Mobile Friday night to hear Trump. In addition, Walker was scheduled to speak at a party function in the state on Saturday, and Bush and Carson will be in Alabama this week.
The Democratic nomination is also likely to be influenced by the SEC primary. Given Hillary Clinton’s continuing email-server problems and the uncertainty about Joe Biden’s potential candidacy, it’s hard to say what the Democratic contest will look like by March 1 of next year. But if the race gets to the South and Clinton has suffered a defeat at the hands of Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, the South, with its large share of African Americans in the Democratic Primaries, could rescue her candidacy.