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An early Democratic presidential primary in Georgia depends on Republicans

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who's seen here on Oct. 25, is the ultimate decider of the state's presidential primary date. At right is Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer in Raffensperger's office.
Elijah Nouvelage
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Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who's seen here on Oct. 25, is the ultimate decider of the state's presidential primary date. At right is Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer in Raffensperger's office.

ATLANTA — When a panel inside the Democratic National Committee voted two weeks ago to revamp the party's presidential primary calendar, that was the easy part.

If the full DNC approves the plan, actually implementing the changes will be more challenging.

For starters, Iowa and New Hampshire — long the one-two punch that has kicked off presidential hopefuls' journeys — might disregard the Democratic proposal and hold contests on their own terms. Michigan, which would go fifth, would have to change state law, though Democrats took control of the legislature in the midterms.

And in Georgia, which would go fourth in the lineup, the ultimate decider of the state's primary date is a Republican who says for now his hands are tied.

"It'd be kinda cool to have the Election Day be sooner for Georgia for the primary, but this office will do nothing that will hurt the number of delegates or violate the rules of either one of the parties," said Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer in the Georgia secretary of state's office.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is a Republican who is part of a Republican-controlled state government that works with a Republican-controlled legislature. But Sterling says his boss keeping the status quo isn't partisan. Rather, he said it is about protecting election workers and following rules set by the parties.

"We're not going to have two different primaries because that's a lot of stress and strain on poll workers and counties," Sterling said. "We're going to have one presidential preference primary day and whichever one has the furthest-out amount of rules around that — which right now is the Republicans — we will stick with that, which means we will have a March primary."

While Democrats are eager to alter the calendar, and move Iowa later and South Carolina earlier, the Republican National Committee has so far kept its lineup, in this order: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. For both parties, deviating from the rules in place could jeopardize the number of delegates at their conventions.

"Center of the political universe"

Bernard Fraga, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, says a seismic shift in the nominating calendar has big rewards for those who would end up earlier than the rest of the country.

"The shakeup that we're seeing now has really big consequences," he said. "It really kind of disturbs the order that both parties really relied upon, and it provides a set of incentives for these early states to get a lot more media attention."

Fraga says Georgia becoming an earlier state would bring increased investment of political and financial capital in a state that's no stranger to electoral attention, not to mention more press attention and heightened profiles for surrogates who live in the state and Democratic lawmakers.

"I like to say we're the center of the political universe, and that is not going to change this cycle or next cycle," said Georgia U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, chair of the state Democratic Party. "This is going to continue for years to come, and the fact that we're being prioritized, that speaks volumes for both Democrats and Republicans."

Georgia has been home to some of the most expensive U.S. Senate races in history, including two high-profile runoffs crucial to Democrats' majorities. In 2020, Georgia narrowly went for President Biden, flipping the state's electoral votes for the first time in decades.

And after the 2022 midterms saw Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp both win on the strength of split-ticket voters, its battleground status has been elevated to new heights ahead of 2024.

Williams says a more prominent presidential primary spot would benefit both parties.

"If you look at the past couple of cycles in Georgia, we were elevated as a premier battleground state in this country, and battleground states worked in favor of both Democrats and Republicans because we have to make our case to the voters," she said. "And that's what this is about, it's about centering the voices of Georgians and showing that we are important in the national story, the national conversation, and that we are worth investment from all sides."

Fraga said Georgia Republicans might not see how moving the Democratic primary earlier adds up for them, but there is a case to be made for the GOP to also benefit from a more prominent slot to shape their messaging.

"When you start considering the possibility that Republicans could use an early primary nominating contest to either indicate to their voters the extremity of some of these Democratic potential nominees, or to push the Republican Party to make similar changes, you start to see that the math is a little bit more tricky," he said. "And there might be a few Republicans who say it's worth it to push the Democrats up if it brings the GOP along with them."

There's still plenty of time for changes in rules and changes of heart in settling the primary pecking order, and in Georgia Raffensperger doesn't have to set a date until next fall.

But the DNC is asking those early state contenders to provide an update on their status by Jan. 5, 2023.

Copyright 2022 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.