ATLANTA — On the gridiron, it takes a team to win, and some elected officials around the South are looking to band together rather than brawl over the 2016 presidential primaries.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp is among those pushing a regional March 1, 2016 contest known as the "SEC Primary," named after the Southeastern Conference and would include states like Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi and possibly Alabama and Louisiana.
"As someone who went to the University of Georgia and lives in Athens and understands how powerful the Southeastern Conference is in football today, that is exactly what we want to be when it comes to presidential politics," Kemp said.
Although the state primaries would be held for each party, much of the focus would be on the large group of Republican presidential contenders expected to vie for the nomination.
With the South being a strong voting bloc for Republicans, officials say an early primary date would give them an important say in whom the GOP nominee should be and would comply with rules put forward by the Republican National Committee that allows states willing to carve up its delegates proportionally to hold their nominating contests on March 1. Those states that prefer winner-take-all must still wait until March 15.
The RNC also sharpened the penalties for states jumping ahead of the early primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — as Florida did in 2012, which pushed the schedule into early January. A state would now lose a significant number of its delegates, a deterrent particularly for large states.
Both Georgia and Tennessee are already set on the March 1, 2016 date. Tennessee lawmakers back in 2011 passed legislation designating the first Tuesday in March for presidential primaries. Officials in Arkansas and Mississippi say they are working to move their primary.
Part of the draw, says Kemp, is that a cluster of states would make it easier for candidates to visit multiple states at a time and spend money on advertising in TV markets that cross state lines. And because they would be early states, candidates might be lured into spending money to hire local staff who will become key assets if they secure the nomination, Kemp said.
"It gives the South a lot of influence in national political decisions," Kemp said.
It remains to be seen whether Louisiana and Alabama will jump in. Louisiana lawmakers earlier this year moved the state's primary to the first Saturday, which would be March 5, 2016.
A spokeswoman for Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler said he's aware of the "SEC Primary" push and studying the issue.
Alabama's presidential primary is set for the second Tuesday, or March 8, 2016. Alabama Secretary of State Jim Bennett said he would support the effort but not if it there were a large number of Southern states involved or if Midwestern states decided to hold their nominating contests that day.
"If it were six or eight states, we would be part of the presidential selection process," Bennett said. "We need to be part of the process and not an afterthought."
And that could very well happen because Florida and Texas, two other SEC states with a large number of delegates, are also planning primaries on March 1, 2016. Those two states alone could dominate the attention of at least some of the top presidential contenders with strong ties like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — should they decide to run.
Kemp says he believes the other states will still matter because candidates not winning those states will need to show their campaigns are still viable.
"The other candidates will ask themselves, 'Do I want to go spend $10-20 million in Florida or Texas to compete against a favorite son or would I be better served to just disregard that state and go to other states like Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas?'" Kemp said.
One relatively new SEC state that appears unlikely to make the switch is Missouri, where lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year setting the primary for March 15, and there doesn't appear to be any interest in changing it. And Kentucky is dealing with another set of issues related to Sen. Rand Paul. The state GOP may end up moving from a primary to a caucus system to allow Paul the ability to run for president while not giving up his Senate seat.
Associated Press writers Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Alabama; David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri; and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report. Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AP_Christina.