The road to bringing a multitude of presidential candidates to Alabama began in 2014 for Secretary of State John H. Merrill, who championed the idea for the state.
In July that year, Merrill received a telephone call from Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
Along with congratulating Merrill on his recent victory in the Secretary of State primary race, Kemp pitched the idea of establishing an SEC Primary: – a primary that would include all of the Southern states associated with college football’s Southeastern Conference.
“The purpose for that was so that our voice would be louder and our vote would count more in the selection process than it had previously,” Merrill said. “I really wasn’t overly enthusiastic about it.”
In December that year, after winning the Secretary of State position a month before, Merrill was invited by the Pew Charitable Trust to attend a meeting in Santa Monica, California, where he had the opportunity to meet with other Secretaries of State, former and recently elected.
There Merrill struck up a conversation with former Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz about presidential politics.
Merrill recalled Shultz confiding that “unless an Iowan meets a presidential candidate at least eight times we’re not voting for them, because we don’t feel like we’ve had a chance to get to know them.”
Merrill noted how rare the opportunity to meet a presidential candidate is for Alabamians and decided it was time to act.
“I’m going to put our people in a stronger position than they’ve been before to participate in this process,” Merrill said.
From there, Merrill began working together with Kemp and officials in the Alabama Legislature in an effort to move the state’s primary date to March.
Legislation was required for such an effort, so Merrill enlisted Democratic Sen. Quinton Ross of Montgomery to sponsor the bill in the Senate and Republican Rep. Ed Henry in Clarksville to sponsor the bill in the House.
The bill was passed and signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley.
In August 2015, Merrill attended the Red State Gathering in Atlanta and had the opportunity to meet nine of the top 10 Republican presidential candidates.
“I just started selling Alabama,” Merrill said. “We met with all of them and Ted Cruz was the first to take us up on that offer.”
Less than two weeks later, Republican presidential candidates John Kasich, Donald Trump, Scott Walker, Dr. Ben Carson and Jeb Bush all held rallies in Alabama. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton would also visit the state, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee.
According to Merrill, Trump’s rally in Mobile was the largest in the nation held, to-date, during this election cycle. Further, the ensuing media coverage and influx of tourist dollars was “remarkable” in comparison to the $16,000 spent to host the event.
“That’s unparalleled and unprecedented in the history of our state,” Merrill said.
Currently, the SEC Primary as envisioned by Merrill and his cohorts includes Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia, all of which will hold primaries on March 1.
In conjunction with the political power it gives to Alabama voters, the move has also provided Alabama legislators with a stronger voice in presidential politics.
Governor Bentley formally endorsed Ohio Governor Kasich, Merrill has endorsed former Arkansas Governor Huckabee, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks endorsed Cruz, a multitude of state legislators have endorsed Trump, and most state Democrats have endorsed former Secretary of State Clinton.
“It’s important to me that our people have the chance to meet them,” Merrill said. “That’s what I have been excited about trying to do.”