Why you should care
Because the South’s role in presidential politics is here to stay — and it’s likely only going to grow stronger.
In the final days before today’s SEC Primary, the quiet architect behind it all was pounding the pavement in a way that only a politician from below the Mason-Dixon Line could.
On Friday, he snuck in an early vote in Athens, his hometown and home to the good ol’ Georgia Bulldogs. Yesterday, he raced down I-85 to brief legislative leadership at the state capital. And, while tossing a pigskin, Brian Kemp — Georgia’s secretary of state — welcomed presidential candidates to the South in a video where he hoped they’d “experience firsthand some of our great Southern hospitality.” It took years of planning, legislation and chatting over the fence with fellow Dixie neighbors, but Kemp’s efforts have culminated in one manic 12-hour sprint of election-day voting that could make the South instrumental in picking the next president of the United States. “It’ll be a relief when the polls close,” Kemp tells OZY, in a brief moment of respite, from his yawning office on the second floor of Georgia’s golden dome.
While the polls aren’t closed yet on this Super Tuesday, Southern voters — including a disproportionate number of evangelical Christians — are poised to help Donald J. Trump get one big step closer to wrapping up the nomination if the polls prove accurate. And just as his region has increased its influence outside its borders, so has Kemp. After becoming state secretary in 2010, Kemp started pitching other election officers — including those from Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee — on the idea of forming a shared primary on March 1. It worked. “It does raise his profile as someone who matters,” says TheAtlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jim Galloway, who has covered state politics for three decades. “And, remember, during this whole process, he’s been escorting all these presidential candidates.”
The 52-year-old’s been careful not to endorse any one candidate, and his spokesman tells OZY that he hasn’t appeared with any presidential candidate at an event this election season. But he has gotten attention from top Republicans, including an appreciative tweet from Ben Carson back in October.
A former state senator tasked with a mostly anonymous statewide constitutional office, he’s now got the sheen of a national player … and perhaps a future candidate for governor? Both he and Georgia’s lieutenant governor, Casey Cagle, “would be the two leading candidates” for that position, says Charles Bullock, an expert in Southern politics at the University of Georgia. (Kemp wouldn’t comment on a gubernatorial run.)
— Dr. Ben Carson (@RealBenCarson) October 19, 2015
His ascent began in 2010, when he was elected into office by a double-digit margin. It was around that time when the small-business owner, who’s dabbled in construction firms and timber farms, among other areas, began pursuing his idea for a regional primary. In the past, “the race was already over before it got to us,” Kemp says. And he was determined to make that change. He did so by getting buy-in from certain states to hold their primaries on the same day he wanted, either through statewide votes or by having their state secretaries agree on changing the date.
The eventual name, naturally, would mimic the Southeastern Conference that unites this corner of football-loving America like sweet tea on Sundays. The end result: Today’s SEC Primary will feature 12 states — with the Bible Belt well represented, of course — including Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas. “It’s more of a snapshot of real America than Iowa or New Hampshire is,” Kemp says.
The last time the South made a major push to play kingmaker in picking the president was the ’80s, and Georgia was part of a contingent led by Southern Democrats, who organized the first Super Tuesday, with every state in the region, except South Carolina, participating. But back then it didn’t work, with left-leaning Michael Dukakis winning the nomination, notes Bullock. “It ended up not working the way they hoped.”
Yet it may have backfired this time too. Experts assumed this year’s SEC Primary was meant to stack the deck for a candidate with traditional conservative values — say, Carson or Ted Cruz. The rise of Trump as the South’s favored son disappointed those hoping for a religious-right champion. Kemp, unlike Trump, doesn’t see himself as an outsider: “I bring some of the Tea Party, some of the right-wing conservative party, but really am more of a small-business-owner candidate.” And Kemp doesn’t think Trump’s success will hurt candidates like himself in future elections. “I don’t doubt for a minute that he has a movement going on,” Kemp says. “But do those people care about a governor’s race?” So far, it doesn’t seem that way. Bullock notes voter discontent is aimed more at politicians in D.C. than Atlanta.
Still, this road hasn’t been all smooth for Kemp. His office inadvertently released a dozen CDs with millions of voters’ private info (including Social Security numbers) to a few outside groups. “It was a bad thing, and I took full responsibility for it,” says Kemp, who retrieved the discs, though it’s unclear whether the data on them was passed on. “Peach breach” — as it became known — “is a huge liability for him,” says Anthony Michael Kreis, who teaches political science at the University of Georgia. “It speaks to a competence, and crisis-management, issue.” And, in 2014, some Democrats accused Kemp of launching a political witch hunt in his investigation of a state voter-registration effort.
For his part, Kemp says that when his office gets reports from local jurisdictions that their voters’ signatures were forged, “then absolutely, we’re going to investigate.” And he’s much more focused on touting the present — “a big day” — than revisiting the past. It’s easy to see why; the SEC Primary could become even bigger. State political watchers say Kemp’s next step will likely include trying to convince South Carolina to join his contingent. “He wants a bloc,” notes Galloway. While Kemp’s office says he hasn’t “considered any specific ideas” for 2020 yet, Kemp is already working to make a bigger name for himself. Indeed, in his welcome video, Kemp walks onto the University of Georgia football field to heavy metal, thrusting a football toward the camera and listing various Southern priorities. But the video is also trying to thrust Kemp, and his otherwise little-known office, into the national limelight.