Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Is this how the SEC primary backfires?

It doesn’t get much more “establishment Republican” in Atlanta than Newt Gingrich speaking at the Commerce Club to a group convened by the law firm formerly known as McKenna Long and Aldridge. So imagine the crowd’s reaction when Gingrich spoke these two fearsome words: “brokered convention.”

The former House speaker appeared Tuesday in a kind of road show with Democrat Howard Dean for their firm (now known as Dentons). He riffed on the possibility of a floor fight at next summer’s GOP nominating convention in Cleveland because so many early-primary states — including Georgia — must award their delegates proportionally, rather than giving all to the leading vote-getter.

That, Gingrich said, means there’s little incentive for even marginal candidates to drop out of the fractured field.

“If you think you can get 5 or 6 or 7 percent of the delegates, you can come to the convention with some muscle, and you end up with a brokered convention,” he said, describing that scenario as “chaos” and “wild” but also, “as an observer … very cool.”

Very cool chaos could happen if low-polling candidates stick around and prevail in winner-take-all states. “(Ohio Gov. John) Kasich will probably carry Ohio. (New Jersey Gov. Chris) Christie will probably carry New Jersey,” Gingrich said. “They’re asking themselves, ‘Why would I drop out?’ ”

Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before. The specter of a deal being struck in a smoke-filled room to fill out the ticket seems to be raised about this time every four years. But the chances, while still somewhere short of “probable,” are better now than in the past.

“Under the current rules, there is a 1 in 3 chance we’ll have a brokered convention,” offered Randy Evans, one of Georgia’s Republican National Committee members. That’s a significantly better chance than in past contests, even if it’s way too soon to push the panic button.

Still, let’s say the GOP field remains large and splintered all the way to the convention. If so, contrary to the wishes of those in Georgia and other Southern states that sought a larger voice in the contest, the big “SEC primary” on March 1 could wind up rendering them less influential.

At the risk of getting into the weeds, let me explain. It’s not just that Georgia will divide its 76 delegates among any candidates who receive at least 20 percent of the vote, diluting its influence compared to winner-take-all Ohio (66 delegates) or even Arizona (58). You have to keep in mind the convention is where candidates are actually nominated.

In recent years that was a mere formality, because only one candidate was left standing; in 2012, Mitt Romney was actually the only nominee even though several Republicans ran for president that year. But should no clear winner emerge, GOP rules require nominees to have majority support from eight states. Evans predicted none of the proportional, SEC primary states would muster such a majority.

It remains more likely that a candidate or two will break away from the pack, possibly because of a boost from SEC country. But …

Can you imagine the voter outrage should, for example, Donald Trump win a 40 percent plurality but not end up with the nomination because all the other delegates ganged up on him? Or if Jeb Bush were to slog his way to third place, only to wind up atop the ticket?

If you thought the GOP had an outsider/establishment problem now, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.