The SEC Primary, Those Northern Yanks, And An Origin Story You Couldn't See Coming

Brian Kemp was sick and tired of his home state of Georgia being overlooked in the presidential election cycle. Time and again during his tenure in the state legislature, he helped select a primary date only to see bigger states set theirs earlier and steal Georgia's thunder. "Nobody paid attention to Georgia very much. We'd be so late in the process because people would jump in front of us that we were an after-thought," Kemp tells Bustle. So, when he became Georgia's Secretary of State, Kemp decided to organize the SEC Primary, seven Southern states voting on the same day to enable the region assert its voice in national politics — a voice that some Southerners felt had been hushed out of significance.

Kemp is considered the main SEC Primary architect, the man who helped bring Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia together for Super Tuesday on March 1. After being elected in 2010, Kemp says he worked to allow the Secretary of State to move up the primary date, but 2012 wasn't as successful in drawing presidential prospect attention to Georgia as he would have liked — thanks to former Speaker of the House and Georgia Congressman, Newt Gingrich. "We had a hometown candidate," Kemp says, explaining the other Republican candidates assumed he'd nab Georgia. "I was thinking about how we could further be in a better position to be noticed and to get some of the action, like they get in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina," Kemp says. He eventually realized uniting with his Southern peers would be key.

"It hit me on day I was driving down the road," he says. "I felt like if we had strength in numbers, if we had three or four states all going the same day down in the South, we would have to be paid attention to, regardless of if there were a New York or a California or anybody else."

Kemp says he began working more than two years ago to convince other states to align in a voting category, similarly to the college athletic conference, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) — and hence, the primary's nickname. So far, it looks like Kemp's plan is working as he had hoped. Candidates have devoted significant attention and funds to hitting up the SEC Primary states. Reuter's Letitia Stein wrote the SEC Primary states "appear poised to play a pivotal role in selecting the Republican and Democratic nominees for the Nov. 8 race."

It's hard not to sense a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality from Kemp as he talks of the South feeling overlooked by the nation. Of course, there are some obvious events that come to mind as explanations for why the South appears to exude a touch of resentment (such as the bloody national strife more popularly known as the War of Northern Aggression in some parts south of the Mason-Dixon line). Admittedly, it is extreme to trace the formation of the SEC Primary to the Civil War, but the desire for an SEC Primary may have historic roots. University of Arkansas professor Angie Maxwell —and author of The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness — tells Bustle that the South spent the second half of the 20th Century watching its political influence wane and struggling with that loss.

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"The South used to have an enormous influence on the presidential election, and specifically on the nominee process," Maxwell explains. While we've come to think of the South largely as one giant red state, the region was formerly a Democratic stronghold. But the South got a wake-up call in 1948 when some regional Democrats who were fearful of racial integration, rejected Harry Truman and formed the Dixiecrat party, running notorious racist Strom Thurmond as the nominee. When Truman pulled off a win "that's the beginning of the end," says Maxwell. "The Democratic party realized it can run without the South."

At the same time, that election "also shed some light for the Republican party that maybe they could be competitive in the South," Maxwell says — and as we see now, the GOP proved not only to be competitive, but the eventual dominant party. This, too, Maxwell explains, left the South feeling ignored in the presidential process because it was considered largely a foregone victory for the Republicans.

Maxwell says," "The region has lost its power as a broker, and it's seeing that other states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and the first-in-the-nation ones — Iowa, New Hampshire — get a lot more play. A lot of money flows to them [and] a lot of media attention."

Hence, the motivation for Georgia and other Southern states to move up their primary dates. But more attention may not translate to the kind of results Southerners want, especially Republican ones. In 1988, a group of Southern states also organized to hold their primaries on the same day.

"The difference is the driving force in 1988 was Democrats. In 2016, it's Republicans. The similarity was in both instances they wanted to force candidates to spend more time in and more attention directed to the South," University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock tells Bustle. "In 1988, when Democrats were driving it, they hoped to get a more conservative nominee. It didn't work out that year," he say. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis earned the Democratic nomination, even though then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore and Jesse Jackson split the Southern states on Super Tuesday.

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Still, there may be something affirming to Southern voters that translates more psychologically than politically through the SEC Primary.

"Other than Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, we are not going to get any attention in the fall," Bullock says. He notes that after the SEC Primary vote, "We're not going to get any visitors from the campaigns or candidates the rest of the seasons. Campaigns will fly into Atlanta, they'll go to one of the downtown hotels, they'll host a big fundraiser, and as quick as they can, they'll be back in their cavalcade and head back to the airport to be onto Wisconsin, Nevada, New Hampshire, a state that's going to be play. So, the Southern states, if they're going to get any attention at all, will be during the primary selection process."

Believe it or not, both primaries and caucuses can be laugh-out-loud hilarious. Don't believe us? Have a listen to Bustle's "The Chat Room" podcast...