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Trump-backed House candidate removed from ballot by Tenn. Republicans

The Tennessee GOP voted Tuesday to remove former State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus and others from the ballot.
Image: Morgan Ortagus during a press conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 26, 2019 in New York City.
Morgan Ortagus during a news conference on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 26, 2019.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

The Tennessee Republican Party voted Tuesday to remove former State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus and two other people from the August primary ballot in the state's 5th Congressional District.

The vote marked the culmination of months of effort by both GOP legislators and activists to boot Ortagus because she had only recently moved to the state. She was endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

"I am deeply disappointed in the SEC’s decision," Ortagus said in a statement, referring to the party’s State Executive Committee. "I’m a bonafide Republican by their standards, and frankly, by any metric. I’m further disappointed that the party insiders at the Tennessee Republican Party do not seem to share my commitment to President Trump’s America First policies.

"As I have said all along, I believe that voters in Middle Tennessee should pick their representative — not establishment party insiders," she continued. "Our team is evaluating the options before us."

The state GOP’s executive committee has the authority to disqualify candidates from the primary ballot for failing to adhere to the party’s bylaws, which require a candidate to have voted in three of the last four GOP primaries, as well as to actively participate in the state or local Republican parties. The committee voted to remove Ortagus and fellow candidates Robby Starbuck and Baxter Lee, whose candidacies were also challenged, state GOP Chairman Scott Golden said.

In recent years, the party has scuttled a number of candidates for failing to meet the qualifications. Golden said last month that party leaders in the district could help keep challenged candidates from being disqualified by vouching for them before the committee, even if the contenders' voting records do not comport with the party's bylaws.

Ortagus' campaign argued that she met all of the state party’s bylaws — voting in enough recent GOP primaries, participating in Republican women’s groups and contributing to the state party. In a statement ahead of the vote, Ortagus said she spent several weeks speaking with members of the State Executive Committee "about my core conservative beliefs, my background serving in the Trump Administration and the U.S. Navy Reserves, and my conservative vision for our state and our country."

"President Donald Trump believes I’m the best person to fight for his America First agenda and Middle Tennessee in Congress, and I’m working hard to ensure that my fellow Tennesseans, including TNGOP SEC members, understand why," she said.

The primary is one of many across the country in which Trump’s influence is being put to the test.

Although Ortagus entered the competitive primary for the newly drawn 5th District in February with the former president's "complete and total endorsement" in hand, her candidacy irked some state and local Republicans, in part because she had moved to Tennessee only last year. Upon moving to the state, Ortagus lived just outside the newly drawn district she seeks to represent before moving inside its borders in mid-March, her campaign said.

Additionally, her critics have highlighted her years of criticism of Trump and her support for Jeb Bush in the 2016 GOP primaries, as well as the fact that her wedding was officiated by the liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

In recent weeks, state legislators passed a bill that, had it taken effect before the April 7 filing deadline, would have disqualified her from the primary ballot. The legislation, which requires congressional candidates to live in the state for three years to qualify for primary ballots, overwhelmingly passed the GOP-controlled Legislature before Republican Gov. Bill Lee allowed it to become law without signing it after he held it for 10 days.

A spokesperson for the Tennessee secretary of state's office told The Associated Press that the legislation would not apply retroactively to candidates who qualified for the ballot by the deadline earlier this month.

"I voted for Trump. I supported him," state Sen. Frank Niceley, the Republican who spearheaded the legislation, said in an interview last month. "I’ll vote for Trump as long as he lives. But I don’t want him coming out here to tell me who to vote for."

For weeks, rumors swirled in local GOP circles that Trump would not care if Ortagus' bid was thwarted before voters had the chance to weigh in on her candidacy.

In the earlier interview, Niceley, who is supporting former state House Speaker Beth Harwell in the primary and recently came under fire after he invoked Adolf Hitler in a state Senate floor speech about homelessness, suggested that only Jewish members of Trump’s family cared about Ortagus’ candidacy because of her Jewish faith.

"I don’t think Trump cares one way or the other," he said. "I think Jared Kushner — he’s Jewish, she’s Jewish — I think Jared will be upset. Ivanka will be upset. I don’t think Trump cares."

In response, Ortagus said in a statement that Niceley "should be ashamed of his repeated anti-Semitic rhetoric," adding she is "incredibly proud to call myself a part of the Jewish people."

"I will condemn anyone who traffics in this hate-mongering," she added. "Senator Niceley’s repulsive words could not be more clear in disparaging the Jewish people. This racism cannot stand."

In a statement Wednesday morning, Niceley said backlash over his remarks was merely an effort to distract from Ortagus' disqualification from the primary ballot.

"Let me be clear: I have nothing but respect for the Jewish people and the State of Israel," Niceley said. "Attempting to construe my off-hand comments about the Trump family as antisemitism is unfair and inaccurate."

This week, The Tennessean reported that Republican National Committee member Beth Campbell said in an April 10 email it obtained that "RNC sources" told her "Trump is OK" with the state GOP's removing Ortagus from the ballot.

In a statement to The Tennessean, Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich denied Campbell's claim. He did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News.

"That is a dirty lie, which should not surprise anyone, given there are RINOs in Tennessee trying to quietly pull strings and illegally remove President Trump’s endorsed candidate, Morgan Ortagus, from the ballot," he told The Tennessean. "RINO" is an acronym for "Republicans in name only."

Meanwhile, Starbuck, a right-wing personality who moved to the 5th District in 2019 and is backed by pro-Trump influencers and some prominent lawmakers, pushed back against the state party process, adding that he had not met the primary voting requirement because of "a simple mixup."

"My whole life I’ve only been registered with one party and I’ve only ever donated to Republican candidates," he said in a statement last month, adding, "Not allowing me on the ballot would disenfranchise a huge segment of our voters in Tennessee, discourage people from engaging in the process and most of all it would reek of the dirty politics that makes so many distrust our elections."

Starbuck, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, tweeted a video Tuesday evening of the late Breitbart News founder Andrew Breitbart saying one word: "War." He pledged in a Thursday morning tweet to "fight this with every ounce of fight we have."

The primary features about a dozen candidates in the district mostly south of Nashville. The existing 5th District is held by longtime Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat who announced his retirement after the Republican-held Legislature’s new voting maps were released and the district swung significantly to the right.