Tennessee G.O.P. Removes Trump-Backed House Candidate From Ballot

The Tennessee Republican Party voted on Tuesday to drop Morgan Ortagus, whose bid for a House seat was endorsed by former President Donald J. Trump,..


Tennessee G.O.P. Removes Trump-Backed House Candidate From Ballot

The Tennessee Republican Party voted on Tuesday to drop Morgan Ortagus, whose bid for a House seat was endorsed by former President Donald J. Trump, from the primary ballot.

Scott Golden, chairman of the state Republican Party, said the vote to remove Ms. Ortagus and two other candidates, Baxter Lee and Robby Starbuck, from the Fifth Congressional District primary “was all about their voting records.” None of the three had met the party’s requirement of having voted in three of the last four statewide primaries, he said.

The Republican-led legislature previously failed to bar Ms. Ortagus from the ballot with the recent passage of a new residency bill that requires House candidates to have lived in “this state and the district” they want to represent for at least three years.

Ms. Ortagus moved to Tennessee in early 2021, according to a campaign spokeswoman, but the residency bill didn’t become law in time to disqualify her from the ballot. Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, held on to the legislation until after a critical April 7 candidate filing deadline.

“I’m a bona fide Republican by their standards, and frankly, by any metric,” Morgan Ortagus, a former State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “As I have said all along, I believe that voters in Middle Tennessee should pick their representative — not establishment party insiders.”

Of the 16 members of the party’s executive committee who voted on this issue, 13 supported removing Ms. Ortagus and Mr. Starbuck, and 11 voted to remove Mr. Lee, said Mr. Golden. He pointed out that nearly all members of the executive committee who cast votes were Trump delegates to the national convention two years ago.

Julia Bruck, director of communications for Secretary of State Tre Hargett, said in an email that political parties had until Thursday to remove people from the ballot who they deem are “non-bona fide candidates.”

Mr. Golden said, “When you are seeking to be elevated” from party member to candidate and potential office holder, “you have to meet a higher standard.”

The sponsor of the residency bill, State Senator Frank Niceley, made it clear he was opposed to carpetbaggers, a phrase used in politics to describe candidates who run for office in places they have no ties to.

“We don’t want carpetbaggers coming in here with lots of money,” Mr. Niceley told a local television station last month. He also told NBC News that he believed it was only the Jewish members of Mr. Trump’s family, and not the former president himself, who cared about the candidacy of Ms. Ortagus, who is also Jewish.

On Facebook, Ms. Ortagus called the remarks “repulsive” and said “this racism cannot stand.” Mr. Niceley also has a history of making bizarre, antisemitic remarks. In 2016 he wrote on Twitter that Adolf Hitler and his “plebiscites were democracy in action.” In a speech on the floor of the legislature last month, Mr. Niceley cited Hitler as an example of a person who overcame homelessness and went on to lead a life “that got him in the history books.”

Mr. Lee’s campaign did not immediately respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment. Mr. Starbuck, in a statement, called his removal “disgusting” and said the party was “stealing the people’s vote.”

The candidates’ removal was first reported by The Tennessean in Nashville.

The district is held by Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat, who announced in January that he would retire after redistricting turned his safe Democratic seat into one that is practically guaranteed to elect a Republican. The day Mr. Cooper announced his retirement, Mr. Trump endorsed Ms. Ortagus, who had raised more than half a million dollars for the race.

Mr. Starbuck had also nabbed a high-profile endorsement, from Representative Madison Cawthorn, Republican of North Carolina.

Nine other candidates are running for the Republican nomination, including Kurt Winstead, a businessman who has nearly $1 million on hand according to the latest campaign disclosure report, and Beth Harwell, the former speaker of the state legislature, who has more than $340,000 on hand, according to recent disclosure reports.

Mr. Winstead and Ms. Harwell’s campaigns did not immediately reply to email and Facebook messages seeking comment.

“I think we have a good selection of candidates that are running” in the Aug. 4 primary, said Beth Campbell, a member of the Republican National Committee who is involved in local politics.

Ms. Campbell also said the state party’s executive committee followed its bylaws in removing the candidates.

“Probably, every election we’ll have something come up and that somebody is removed,” she said. “This is more high profile but it’s not that unusual.”

Asked if the decision was final, Mr. Golden wrote in an email that it was “possible the members could change their minds.” The deadline is noon on Thursday, he said.




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