By Alex Rogers and Gabby Orr, CNN
Republican state lawmakers and party officials in Tennessee are using every tool imaginable to try to defeat a House candidate endorsed by former President Donald Trump, passing a new residency requirement for congressional candidates and challenging his republican good faith.
None of these efforts will likely prevent Morgan Ortagus, a former State Department spokesman, from participating in the Republican primary for Tennessee’s 5th congressional district. But both illustrate the willingness of state GOP officials to rebuke Trump’s hand-picked nominee in one of the nation’s reddest states.
Ortagus, who moved to the Nashville area last year from Washington, DC, took the carpetbagger attacks seriously as she faces 11 other Republicans for a Middle Tennessee seat redrawn in favor of the GOP. Ortagus’ allies are suing the state over the residency bill and working to reverse a separate effort by some state GOP officials to remove her from the ballot.
A spokesperson for Ortagus said: “Morgan is going to keep doing the work and be out there pounding the pavement and talking to people because that’s who she thinks should make the decision, not the politicians. .”
Trump has not publicly commented on the new residency requirement, but two sources familiar with the matter said he and his team are aware of the situation and have privately expressed support for the lawsuit by Ortagus allies.
In a statement to CNN, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich criticized “Tennessee RINOs trying to pull strings and illegally remove President Trump’s endorsed nominee…from the ballot.” Budowich criticized the attempt by “power-hungry insiders…to deprive voters of the opportunity to elect the strong champion of America first” that Trump sees in Ortagus.
But the latest actions by Trump-aligned Republicans in Tennessee — both in the legislature and in the state party — could undermine the former president’s strength as a GOP kingmaker. Unimpressed with his early endorsement of Ortagus, Tennessee Republicans essentially warned Trump to stay out of business.
Tennessee GOP Rep. Mark Green, who represents a neighboring district, told CNN the bill establishing a residency requirement was intended to “get rid of Morgan Ortagus.” Green, who backed no one in the 5th District primary, aligned himself closely with Trump, opposing his impeachment in the House and voting against certification of the 2020 election results.
Still, even Green said he agreed with the state legislature.
“You shouldn’t be able to go into a state and then turn around and run,” he said. “So I agree with them in principle, and I agree with their power to do that.”
A Tennessee-based Republican strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the thinking behind the state legislature’s efforts to impose the new requirement for congressional candidates, was candid.
“They want to get these people out of here,” the strategist said, referring to both Ortagus and Robby Starbuck, another pro-Trump candidate, who was asked about his Tennessee residency. Starbuck said he moved to the state of California in 2018.
On Feb. 2, a week after Trump endorsed Ortagus, state Sen. Frank Niceley and state Rep. Dave Wright tabled a one-page bill that would require congressional candidates to have voted in from three previous statewide general elections. After negotiations, the state Senate and House overwhelmingly passed a bill requiring U.S. House and Senate nominees to have resided in the state for at least three years before the election.
Wright told CNN the bill would simply require congressional candidates to follow the same residency rules as state lawmakers.
“I think most of my fellow reps on either side of the aisle here in Nashville saw it as a good bill,” he said. “I have to reside in the state of Tennessee for three years to campaign for the state legislature.”
Democratic state senator Raumesh Akbari, who backed the legislation, said it would “eliminate people who are political tourists”.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing for someone to just move into the state because they have celebrity name recognition or unlimited funds and can sit down,” he said. -she adds.
The bill was sent to GOP Governor Bill Lee on April 1. Lee sent it back to the legislature without its signature on Wednesday, allowing the legislation to become law. But the residency requirement will not apply to Ortagus and other qualified applicants this year.
“The bill did not pass into law by the April 7 filing deadline,” Tennessee Secretary of State Julia Bruck said. “The requirement does not apply retroactively to candidates who have met the qualification deadline at noon on April 7.”
Casey Black, spokesperson for Lee, explained the governor’s decision in a statement to CNN, saying, “We believe voters are in the best position to determine who should represent them in Congress.”
Opponents of Tennessee’s new law say it violates the US Constitution, which requires House members to live in the state they represent when elected, not for years. years before an election.
According to a copy of the lawsuit challenging the new residency requirement, which is being funded by the Tennessee Conservatives’ PAC, longtime GOP attorney Charlie Spies argues that the provision “flagrantly violates” Article I of the Constitution “because the Constitution defines the only qualifications necessary to serve as a member of the United States House of Representatives.
Another obstacle for Ortagus
While Ortagus seems to be prevailing against those who challenge her candidacy during her brief tenure in Tennessee, she must now battle against others who challenge her bona fides as a Republican.
The state GOP tentatively withdrew its name from the 5th District primary ballot, along with that of Starbuck and candidate Baxter Lee, in response to challenges from party activists concerned about their credentials. Chuck Grimes, a member of the Tennessee GOP state executive committee, said there are “different reasons” a party official might challenge a candidate, but “most often” it’s because a candidate is “known or believed” not to have voted in at least three of the last four Republican primaries.
Candidates can overturn the decision with the help of so-called vouchers — Republicans who are willing to affirm a candidate’s commitment to the party. The state’s GOP executive committee will vote by April 21 on whether to restore their names.
Two people close to Ortagus said several supporters would vouch for her in the coming days. One such person said that Trump should be among his good guys because of his approval and stature in the Republican Party.
“I expect the state party to eventually certify it,” the person said.
Ortagus has his supporters, including his ex-boss, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other top Republicans. She said in a statement that she raised nearly $600,000 in the first six weeks of her campaign.
Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN that Ortagus “represents the future of the party.”
“She’s a veteran, she understands the world, it would kind of be (Vladimir) Putin’s worst nightmare,” the South Carolina Republican said. “She would be an eloquent spokesperson for American First’s foreign policy.”
The twin moves by lawmakers and party officials underscore widespread antipathy among Tennessee Republicans for Trump’s chosen candidate in the new 5th District, a longtime Democratic stronghold rooted in Nashville that now encompasses more conservative suburbs after the redistricting. The actions benefit candidates with deeper ties to Tennessee, including former state House speaker Beth Harwell and Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, who previously served as the state director of the conservative activist group. Americans for Prosperity.
A spokesperson for Ortagus criticized “chosen ones who ask favors of their friends”.
Starbuck said his GOP good faith was beyond question.
“Some opponents are trying to use this process against me, hoping to trick the (state’s executive committee) into impeaching a leading Republican in the polls – me,” he said in a statement. communicated.
Starbuck said state lawmakers originally intended to remove him and Ortagus from the ballot, but the new requirement would not apply to him since he had previously rented in Tennessee before d buy his house. Niceley, the bill’s sponsor, is said to be a supporter of Harwell.
“There was no doubt for us that that was the intention: to try to clear the way for someone that he wanted to win over,” Starbuck told CNN. “If you have to pass a bill to try to get rid of someone through means like this, then you know they can’t beat us alone.”
Niceley, Harwell and state GOP Chairman Scott Golden did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
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