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Tennessee Republicans revolt against Trump's outsider pick for House seat

Morgan Ortagus, who is new to the state, faces an organized effort to keep her off the ballot in a district that, thanks to redistricting, is now ripe for Republican pick up.
Morgan Ortagus
Morgan Ortagus, then a spokesperson for the State Department, at a news conference in Washington on June 24, 2020.Mandel Ngan / Pool via AP file

When Morgan Ortagus announced her bid for a House seat in Tennessee last month, she did so with former President Donald Trump’s “complete and total endorsement” — a surefire way for a GOP candidate to quickly become competitive in a crowded field.

But it's what she doesn’t have that may prevent her from even qualifying for the primary ballot: a track record in the state.

Ortagus, a former Trump State Department spokesperson, moved to Tennessee only last year. That, coupled with a feeling among some in the GOP that Trump’s endorsement essentially served as an anointment, has irked some state and local Republicans enough to mount a significant challenge to her candidacy — and the backlash may soon come to a head as the April 7 deadline to qualify nears. Legislation that would require congressional candidates to live in the state for three years to qualify for primary ballots sailed through the state Senate, while insiders familiar with the process also said they expect her candidacy to soon be challenged before the state GOP’s executive committee.

“I voted for Trump. I supported him,” state Sen. Frank Niceley, the Republican who spearheaded the legislative effort, said in an interview. “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.”

The Republican quarrel comes as Trump has waded into an ever-increasing number of competitive primaries across the country to flex his status as the party’s undisputed leader. Last week, Trump touted 33 victories in the Texas primaries, a number inflated by endorsed candidates who ran uncontested or didn’t face serious challenges.

In other states, some of his endorsed candidates don’t appear to be faring as well. In Georgia, a recent move to endorse in a crowded House primary caused a stir among Republicans there, while former Sen. David Perdue, whom Trump backed to take on GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, trails the governor in polls and in fundraising. In Alabama, Trump-backed Rep. Mo Brooks faces a challenge from Republican Katie Britt in the Senate primary that is gaining momentum. And in Pennsylvania, the Trump-backed candidate, Sean Parnell, quit the Senate race after he lost a child custody battle amid allegations of abuse by his estranged wife.

Ortagus, meanwhile, jumped into a primary featuring nearly a dozen candidates looking to represent the state’s newly drawn 5th Congressional District mostly south of Nashville. The seat in the existing 5th District, which hasn’t elected a Republican since the 1870s, was held by longtime Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat who announced his retirement after the Republican-held Legislature’s new voting maps were released. Cooper accused Republicans of “dismembering” Nashville in the redistricting process.

For the month she’s been in the race, Ortagus has come under intense scrutiny from her rivals, as well as fellow conservatives across the state and nationally. Her critics are quick to point out that she didn’t move to the district she’s running to represent. Nor, they say, does she seem to know basic facts about the area, like which interstate highways cut through the district. They also have highlighted her years-old 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.

As evidence of her conservative bona fides, Ortagus points to her promotion of Trump and his policies at the State Department. On her website, she rails against “Democrats’ plan to turn America into a socialist country,” and Trump called her “an absolute warrior for America First and MAGA!”

"I'll leave state matters to the state legislature,” Ortagus said in a statement, referring to the effort to enact legislation that could disqualify her. “I'm focused on earning the support of Fifth District Tennesseans who want a conservative fighter to defend President Trump's agenda."

Rick Williams, a local Republican activist who co-chaired Trump’s presidential campaigns in the district, said the pushback against Ortagus “is no disrespect” to Trump.

“I think he was told by people this was a candidate he should endorse, and he did. I'm not sure he's too aware of the pushback he's getting here now,” said Williams, who is supportive of another potential candidate, Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles. He added he couldn’t support Ortagus because “she didn’t live here, she hadn’t lived here or knows our values or Tennessee.”

Last week, the state Senate voted 31-1 to pass a bill that would require congressional candidates to be Tennessee residents for three years — and residents of their districts for at least one year — to qualify for primaries. Tennessee already had residency requirements for state offices, but it didn’t have the same measures in place at the federal level.

Similar legislation advanced in the state House on Tuesday but with an amendment that would delay imposing the requirements past November’s election, according to The Tennessean newspaper of Nashville. Attorneys for the Legislature have warned that the legislation could face challenges on constitutional grounds, too, the paper reported.

Should the legislation be enacted, Ortagus, who recently moved to the state and lives in a separate congressional district, according to public records, wouldn’t qualify for the August ballot — although other candidates could get tripped up, too. The deadline to qualify is April 7.

Niceley, who led the state Senate effort and is supporting former state House Speaker Beth Harwell in the 5th District primary, said the bill, which was introduced a week after Trump made his endorsement, came about after legislators realized the residency requirements that applied to them didn’t apply to congressional candidates.

He added that the backlash to Trump’s endorsement of Ortagus wasn’t a rebuke of Trump himself. To underscore his point, Niceley said, “I’ve got a Trump hat on right now.”

“If he was endorsing a Tennessee candidate that lived here, met the qualifications the party puts out, that’s one thing,” he said. “But shipping somebody in and endorsing is a different thing.”

That legislation isn’t the only avenue for Ortagus’ candidacy — and the candidacies of others — to get the boot.

The state GOP’s executive committee can disqualify candidates for 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 active participation in the state or local Republican parties. To trigger a review, a candidate’s bid must first be challenged by at least two residents of their district who have met that same requirement to have voted in three of the last four party primaries.

In recent years, the party has scuttled a number of candidates for failing to meet the qualifications.

State GOP Chairman Scott Golden said the executive committee recently moved to remove 11 of roughly 2,500 candidates running for local office through that process and is about to begin handling challenges to state and federal candidates. Should candidates fail to meet the requirements, having local party leaders from their districts vouch for them before the state executive committee can help keep them from being disqualified.

About what message he would offer Trump should his endorsed candidate be disqualified through this process, Golden said: “At the end of the day, our rules are our rules.”

A member of the state executive committee was “shocked” by the backlash over Ortagus.

“I'm not real happy about it myself,” the person said. “But I'm surprised at the depth and the width of the pushback on this.”

As to whether Ortagus could find herself disqualified, the person said: “Some of these people are going to be afraid to go against a Trump-endorsed candidate like that.”

The executive committee process could also pose problems for an Ortagus primary rival, Robby Starbuck, a right-wing personality and recent transplant to the 5th District who’s backed by pro-Trump influencers and some prominent lawmakers. Starbuck, who moved to Tennessee in 2019, hadn’t met the primary voting requirement, which he said was the result 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, 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.”

While multiple candidates in the race may find themselves ensnared by the party’s moves, Williams said the kerfuffle over Ortagus sends “a clear message” to the former president.

“He has good supporters all over the country,” he said. “But when it comes to him deciding who's the best for their particular districts, he should not weigh in until they have the Republican nominee. And then weigh in all he can.”