Brian Kemp is about to become a very, very popular fellow.
Just before state lawmakers pointed their brake lights toward Atlanta last week, they passed a measure to give Georgia’s secretary of state the power to set the most important date in Republican politics next year.
All right, maybe the second most important date.
The 47-year-old Kemp was given the authority to choose any Tuesday between Jan. 31 and June 12, 2012, for Georgia’s presidential primary.
Kemp could decide if Georgia will join the Florida rebellion, and move its primary near the front of the line.
Or the GOP secretary of state could position Georgia for a safe April vote that might not matter so much in the national scheme — but would guarantee that the state will seat a full slate of happy delegates when the GOP faithful gather in Tampa.
Or Kemp could gamble. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey last week raised the possibility of positioning New Jersey at the tail end of the primary process — on the theory that a late-starting Republican field with no clear leader will also have a late finish.
Georgia could join New Jersey and perhaps another state or two, Kemp said this week. And play king-maker. “I’m keeping my options open,” Kemp said. “We’ve been fast growing, we’ve gaining influence” — Georgia has 16 electoral votes now, up from 15 — “and we should be a factor in who the next president will be.”
Kemp, a former state senator from Athens, has until Dec. 1 to make a call. A governor, a House speaker, a lieutenant governor, 236 lawmakers and a boatload of Republican presidential candidates stand ready to help him.
In 2008, Georgia and many other states pushed their primaries to the front, to the point that the nation’s traditional leaders — Iowa, then New Hampshire — threatened to hold their votes in December.
As a result, last year the Democratic and Republican national committees sought to instill a little discipline. A first tier of states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — will be allowed to go first, beginning Jan. 16.
States that have their primaries in March, according to Republican rules, will have to award their delegates proportionately — a much less attractive proposition to candidates.
Primaries held in April and later will be winner-take-all. With all the contentment that unified state delegations implies — a plus to party insiders.
States that violate the schedule could lose up to half their delegates. Right now, Florida — by naming a Jan. 31 vote — is the only state that has shown a willingness to gamble that the RNC might not be serious.
“If they change the rules and allow Florida to go early, then we could go with them — and that would be appealing,” said Kemp. “There’d be a lot of synergy there for candidates. You have TV markets that overlap.”
But some GOP candidates might fear that a January contest in two large and expensive states would carry too high a price tag, too early.
On Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal said he has no preference for a primary date. “I’m not running,” he said.
Yet former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich, whom Deal is backing, might prefer Georgia comfortably in the middle of the schedule. Rivals would then be more likely to concede the state to Gingrich — who will be claiming “favorite-son” status.
What’s this fuss all about, really? State GOP chairman Sue Everhart was behind the effort to move Georgia’s last presidential primary up to the first Tuesday in February 2008. And she fought the RNC effort to lay down the law last year.
“There is a lot of money if you’re a state coming out early — for your state party,” Everhart said. “The candidates come and you have all the New York television stations buying the rights to record the debate. That could be as much as $1 million. And then the candidates — all of them that want to be on — I think they have to pay about $100,000 each.
“And you charge people to go. So you can easily make $2 or 3 million off one of those,” the Georgia GOP chairman said.
In presidential politics, if you’re not at the front of the line, you’re a “donor state,” she said. That’s been Georgia’s lot.
With the Legislature adjourned, Georgia Republicans are turning their heads to a hotly contested race for the chairmanship of the state GOP that will be settled in mid-May. The presidential primary date is sure to be a part of the conversation.
Everhart, seeking a third two-year term, concedes that Georgia is likely to seek an April date. She worries that anything later might risk a low GOP turnout that could give comfort to Georgia Democrats.
Tricia Pridemore, a Marietta businesswoman backed by Deal, isn’t inclined to give any heartburn to the rank-and-file volunteers whose support she’s seeking —and who will want a front row seat in Tampa. “I’d like to see as many of our delegates seated at the convention,” Pridemore said.
But the third candidate in the GOP chairmanship — Fulton County GOP chairman Shawn Hanley — may be more willing to gamble. “I think the best thing we can do is sit back and let a few issues play out. I don’t think that we should rush it,” Hanley said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider