MANCHESTER, Ga. — Though presidential politicians have long ignored Georgia, the towns and villages in this primarily rural state celebrate their historic connection with Washington power. White House Parkway cuts through this area. The sign in front of the police station in Warm Springs, population 413, touts a century-old tie to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and locals quickly point out that former President Jimmy Carter lives within an hour’s drive.
And yet it’s been decades since this place was relevant in any presidential contest: Aside from Carter, the last candidate anyone remembers campaigning here was John F. Kennedy.
It’s the Manchester 1,200 miles to the north, in New Hampshire, that is supposed to matter during primary season. Not this one.
But in an attempt to flex more muscle in the Republican nominating contest, and potentially boost a candidate with solidly conservative credentials, a half-dozen of the reddest of Southern red states are aiming to band together and hold a Southern Super Tuesday on the earliest possible date. Under the emerging 2016 primary calendar, places like Manchester, Ga., could carry new sway — in some ways acting as an antidote to the famously independent voters up north.
“When you look at where the heartland of the Republican Party is right now, it’s a lot of these Southern states,” said Joel McElhannon, a GOP consultant in Georgia.
The candidates “are going to have to speak to what the base of the party is wanting to hear . . . There’s not going to be much taste for someone interested in getting squishy and moderate.”
Georgia has been leading an effort to mobilize all Southern states to vote March 1. In what has been dubbed the SEC Primary, after the Southeastern college conference famed for football-crazed schools, Georgia is hoping it will be joined by Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
“I definitely think we may be able to get someone more reflective of the base of the party than [2012 nominee Mitt] Romney was,” said Erick Erickson, a prominent conservative commentator and Georgia native. “And that’s a good thing.”
The state is already hosting a parade of candidates, stopping in Atlanta and requesting meetings with Governor Nathan Deal, legislative leaders, and activists. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush delivered a speech before the state Legislature, lingering afterward to shake hands and take photos. Former Texas governor Rick Perry huddled with supporters at The Georgian Club, which has a sweeping view of the Atlanta skyline. In January, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie hosted a dinner at the governor’s mansion for a delegation of nearly a dozen Georgians who flew up for the occasion.
As they stroll through the marble hallways of the Georgia State Capitol, the candidates have clearly done their homework, impressing folks by knowing the names of even rank-and-file lawmakers, and expressing some familiarity with their pet legislative issues. But they are far more familiar with ethanol subsidies in Iowa than they are about the fast-growing port in Savannah, Ga., or the challenges of running one of the world’s busiest airline hubs in Atlanta.
“I think most of them really don’t know much about our state other than what they’ve read,” said Deal.
The last time the South voted en masse was in 1988, when 11 states, Georgia prominent among them, voted on the same day. Democrats hoped the dramatic clustering of primaries would help a moderate sweep the region and head the party’s ticket. Instead, Jesse Jackson and Al Gore split the South, helping pave the way for Michael Dukakis, the liberal governor of Massachusetts, to win the nomination.
More recently, Georgia has been literally passed over: Neighboring South Carolina has instead played an elevated role as the first state in the South to vote, and Florida is so rich in delegates that it usually becomes a key early test of strength.
The SEC primary would come directly after the first four — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — which are protected by national party rules that penalize any other state from holding an election before March 1.
‘The right to bear arms is huge around here. They don’t have just one gun, they have two, three, four — or 12.’Beth Hadley, chairwoman of the county board of commissioners and owner of a farm and garden supply store
Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia are currently all poised to vote March 1, and legislation is pending in Alabama and Arkansas to do the same. The six states together elect 428 of the 2,469 delegates to the GOP convention.
Democrats, too, would hold their primaries March 1, although their contest so far is less competitive and the Southern primary effort is being led by Republicans.
Republicans in the South say they are ideally positioned — even entitled — to reroute the nominating process in a more conservative direction. They view themselves as the ideological core of the party, and some are just plain tired of the same early-voting states getting all of the attention.
“You get sort of jealous when you see a state like Iowa,” said Joe Dendy, the former Republican Party chairman of Cobb County, one of the most populous counties in the state. “They see the candidates all the time, walking around the street. Or so I’m told.”
But with candidates now starting to come to Georgia, the feeling is afoot that the South is finally getting its due as an important player in the primary fight. Suddenly, political consultants here are in demand, television stations are contemplating a boost in ads, and candidates are being invited to the state Republican Party convention next month in Athens, Ga.
“I was just on the phone with one of Rubio’s guys,” Secretary of State Brian Kemp said recently from an office whose decor showcases Georgia peanuts, bottles of Coca-Cola, and a Waffle House coffee mug. “Everybody’s plotting and scheming and I’m trying to let them know how fun this is going to be.”
With so many states voting at the same time, well-financed candidates who can flood TV markets in several states could see an advantage. Such a dynamic could benefit Bush, who has been raising money at a rapid clip.
But it could also help an upstart candidate who shows an ability to rally the conservative base around the South. Senator Ted Cruz announced his presidential campaign with heavy emphasis on his evangelical Christianity, something that could play well in a region with the nation’s greatest concentration of evangelicals.
“No matter how you cut it or slice it, Georgia is a red state,” said Mark Hamilton, a state representative who has met (and posed for photos) with several presidential candidates. “For the conservatives that really want the red meat voters and supporters, Georgia is going to represent that opportunity.”
Down in Manchester, located about 65 miles south of Atlanta in Meriwether County, boiled peanuts are sold on the side of a two-lane highway.
The pride of the county is Warm Springs, which FDR first visited in 1924 and where he later built a retreat called the Little White House.
Roosevelt is said to have gained insight into how the Great Depression was ravaging rural America as he traveled around the area, speaking to Georgians who were struggling.
Many still are.
Some residents are still on dial-up Internet connections. Nearly 90 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced meals at school.
“Our socioeconomic status is poor, poor, poor,” said Allen Parham, a local banker. “It drives a lot of how people think.”
They think the middle class has been squeezed out in the American economy, and some question whether the place where they’ve spent their lives is still a good place for their grandchildren to grow up. They distrust the government and think their community — with its churches, Boy Scouts, and Little League — is better positioned to help.
“Most folks want to support their families. There’s self-respect that comes with having a job,” said Bob Patterson, a local Baptist pastor.
In Patterson’s Manchester, four churches sit on two city blocks, and local residents say gay marriage has little support. Fox News plays on the flatscreen televisions at the local bank. A farm and garden supply store held a contest last weekend where the winner received a Smith and Wesson semiautomatic pistol.
“The right to bear arms is huge around here,” said Beth Hadley, the owner of the store and chairwoman of the county board of commissioners. “They don’t have just one gun, they have two, three, four — or 12.”
The people here in Manchester don’t yet know whether their community will be on the presidential campaign circuit.
But while voters in Manchester, N.H., who contend with a ceaseless swarm of candidates every four years, like to joke that they need to personally meet the candidates two or three times before deciding whom to support, those in Manchester, Ga., say all it would take is one meeting.
“If any presidential candidate came to Manchester, Ga., the majority of people would vote for them,” Hadley said with a laugh.
“If they just got to shake their hand,” she added, “it would make a huge difference.”