Morgan Ortagus, a candidate for the Tennessee House seat, announced her candidacy last month with former President Donald Trump's "complete endorsement" -- which is a guaranteed way for a GOP candidate quickly to become competitive in a highly competitive field.
It's not what she lacks that could prevent her from qualifying for the primary ballot. A track record in the state.
Ortagus, a former spokesperson for Trump State Department, only moved to Tennessee last year. This, along with the feeling that Trump's endorsement was essentially an anointment for some Republicans, has upset some state and local Republicans sufficiently to mount a substantial challenge to her candidacy. The backlash could soon come to an end as the April 7 deadline to apply may be nearing. The state Senate passed legislation that required congressional candidates to reside in the state for three consecutive years to be eligible for the primary ballots. Insiders familiar with the process said they expected her candidacy will soon be challenged by the executive committee of the state GOP.
"I voted in support of Trump. State Sen. Frank Niceley, a Republican, stated in an interview that he supported Trump. "I will vote for Trump so long as he is alive. But he shouldn't tell me who to vote for.
Trump is waging a constant battle for his party's leader status in an increasing number of primaries across the country. Trump boasted 33 wins in Texas' primaries last week. This number was inflated by endorsement candidates who were not challenged or ran uncontested.
Some of his endorsed candidates in other states aren't faring as well. A recent endorsement in the crowded House primary caused controversy among Republicans. Former Sen. David Perdue was supported by Trump to run for GOP governor. Brian Kemp trails the governor in both fundraising and polls. Alabama's Trump-backed Rep. Mo Brooks will face a challenge by Republican Katie Britt in the Senate primaries that is growing momentum. In Pennsylvania, Trump-backed candidate Sean Parnell quit the Senate race following losing a child custody battle with over allegations of abuse by his ex-wife .
Ortagus, meanwhile jumped into a primary with nearly a dozen candidates seeking to represent the newly drawn 5th Congressional District, which is mostly south of Nashville. Longtime Rep. Jim Cooper held the seat in the 5th District that has not been represented by a Republican since 1870s. He announced his retirement following the release of new voting maps from the Republican-held Legislature. Cooper claimed that Republicans " dismember" Nashville during the redistricting process.
Ortagus has been under intense scrutiny by her rivals and fellow conservatives throughout the state and national for the month she has been in the race. Her critics point out that she did not move to the district she is running for. They also claim that she doesn't seem to be able to identify basic facts about the area such as which interstate highways run through it. They have also highlighted her decades-old criticisms of Trump and her support of Jeb Bush in 2016's GOP primaries.
Ortagus demonstrates her conservative credentials by promoting Trump's policies at the State Department. She rails against the "Democrats' plan for turning America into a socialist nation," and Trump calls her "an absolute warrior to America First and MAGA!"
Ortagus stated that she would leave state issues to the legislature, referring to her efforts to pass legislation that could disqualify. "I'm focusing on winning the support of Fifth District Tennesseans, who want a conservative fighter for President Trump's agenda."
Rick Williams, a Republican activist from the district who co-chaired Trump’s presidential campaigns in the District, stated that the pushback against Ortagus was "no disrespect" to Trump.
"I believe he was told by people that he should endorse this candidate, and he did. Williams said that he is supporting Andy Ogles, Maury County mayor. "I'm not sure he realizes how much pushback he's getting now." Ortagus was not a candidate for him because "she wasn't born here, she hasn't lived here, or knows our values and Tennessee," he said.
The state Senate voted 31-1 last week to approve a bill requiring congressional candidates to be Tennessee residents for at least three years and to live in their respective districts for at most one year to be eligible for the primaries. Tennessee had already established residency requirements for state offices. However, the federal measures were not as stringent.
Similar legislation was passed by the state House on Tuesday, but an amendment that would delay the imposing of the requirements beyond November's election was added to The Tennessean newspaper. The paper reported that attorneys for the Legislature warned that the legislation could be challenged on constitutional grounds.
Ortagus, who moved to the state recently and now lives in a different congressional district, would not be eligible for the August ballot, according to public records. However, other candidates may get confused. April 7th is the deadline for qualifying.
Niceley was the leader of the state Senate effort, and is supporting Beth Harwell, former Speaker of the State House in the 5th District Primary. The bill was introduced one week after Trump's endorsement. It was created after lawmakers realized that the residency requirements they applied to them did not apply to congressional candidates.
He said that Trump's backing of Ortagus was not a criticism of Trump. Niceley stated, "I have a Trump hat on."
He said, "If he were endorsing a Tennessee-based candidate who lived here and met the qualifications of the party, that's one thing." "But shipping someone in and endorsing them is another thing."
Ortagus' candidacy is not limited to legislation. Other candidacies are also available for the chance at the boot.
Candidates for the primary ballot can be disqualified by the state GOP's executive board for not adhering to the party's Bylaws. These require candidates to have voted in at least three of the last four GOP primaries and to have been active in the state's or local Republican parties. A candidate's bid must be challenged by two residents in their district who meet the same requirements to have voted at least three times in the previous four primary elections.
The party has cut off a lot of candidates who have not met the requirements in recent years.
Scott Golden, the chairman of the State GOP, stated that the executive committee has recently moved to eliminate 11 candidates from around 2,500 who were running for local office. It is now ready to handle challenges to federal and state candidates. Candidates who fail to meet these requirements can be disqualified by having their local party leaders vouch for them in front of the state executive committee.
Golden spoke about the message he would send Trump if his endorsed candidate was disqualified by this process and said that: "At end of the day our rules are our laws."
One member of the state executive board was shocked by the backlash against Ortagus.
The person stated that she was not happy with the situation. "But I'm shocked at the depth and breadth of the pushback on it."
The person stated that Ortagus might be disqualified if she is not able to stand against Trump-endorsed candidates like Trump.
Robby Starbuck is a right-wing personality who moved to Ortagus in 2019. He's also a recent Ortagus transplant. The executive committee process could pose problems for Starbuck, an Ortagus primary opponent. He's supported by prominent lawmakers and pro-Trump activists. Starbuck, who arrived in Tennessee in 2019, had not met the primary voting requirement. He said it was due to "a simple mixup."
He stated, "My entire life, I have only been registered with one party, and I've never donated to Republican candidates," adding that "not allowing me to be on the ballot would disenfranchise large segments of our voters in Tennessee, discourage people form engaging in the process, and most importantly, it would reek the dirty politics which makes so many distrust our election."
Williams stated that while multiple candidates may be entangled by the party's moves in the race, Williams said the Ortagus kerfuffle sends a "clear message" to the former president.
He said, "He has many good supporters across the country." He should wait until the Republican nominee is in place to weigh in when he decides who's best for each district. Then he should weigh in as much as he can.