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Trump-backed House candidate faces backlash from Tennessee Republicans

By Alex Rogers and Gabby Orr, CNN

Republican state legislators and party officials in Tennessee are using every conceivable tool to try to throw a House candidate endorsed by former President Donald Trump off the ballot, passing a new residency requirement for congressional candidates and challenging her Republican bona fides.

Neither effort is likely to keep Morgan Ortagus, a former State Department spokesperson, out of the Republican primary for Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District. But both illustrate a willingness by GOP officials in the state to rebuke Trump’s handpicked candidate in one of the reddest states in the country.

Ortagus, who moved to the Nashville area only last year from Washington, DC, has taken the carpetbagger attacks seriously as she competes against 11 other Republicans for a Middle Tennessee seat redrawn to favor the GOP. Ortagus’ allies are suing the state over the residency bill and working to overturn 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 pavement and talking to folks because that is who she feels should make the decision, not 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 voiced support for the lawsuit led by Ortagus’ allies.

In a statement to CNN, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich slammed “RINOS in Tennessee who are trying to pull strings and illegally remove President Trump’s endorsed candidate … from the ballot.” Budowich criticized the attempt by “power-hungry insiders … to deprive voters of the opportunity to elect the strong America First champion” that Trump sees in Ortagus.

But the latest actions by Trump-aligned Republicans in Tennessee — both in the legislature and the state party — could undercut the former President’s strength as a GOP kingmaker. Unimpressed with his early endorsement of Ortagus, Tennessee Republicans have essentially warned Trump to stay out of their business.

Tennessee GOP Rep. Mark Green, who represents a neighboring district, told CNN that the bill establishing a residency requirement was intended “to get rid of Morgan Ortagus.” Green, who has not endorsed anyone in the 5th District primary, has aligned himself closely with Trump, opposing his impeachment in the House and voting against certifying the 2020 election results.

Yet even Green said he agreed with the state legislature.

“You shouldn’t be able to move into a state and then turn around and run,” he said. “So I agree with them on principle, and I agree with their power to do it.”

A Tennessee-based Republican strategist, granted anonymity to describe the thinking behind the state legislature’s effort to impose the new requirement for congressional candidates, was blunt.

“They want to get these folks the hell out of here,” said the strategist, referring to both Ortagus and Robby Starbuck, another pro-Trump candidate, who has faced questions over his Tennessee residency. Starbuck has said he moved to the state from California in 2018.

On February 2, a week after Trump endorsed Ortagus, state Sen. Frank Niceley and state Rep. Dave Wright filed a single-page bill that would require congressional candidates to have voted in three previous statewide general elections. After negotiations, the state Senate and state House overwhelmingly passed a bill mandating that US House and Senate candidates must have resided in the state for at least three years prior to the election.

Wright told CNN that the bill would simply make congressional candidates abide by the same residency rules as state lawmakers.

“I think that most of my peer representatives on either side of the aisle here in Nashville saw it as being a good piece of legislation,” he said. “I’ve got to be a resident in the state of Tennessee for three years in order to campaign to be in the state legislature.”

Democratic state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, who supported the legislation, said it would “eliminate people who are political office tourists.”

“I don’t think it is a good thing for someone to just move into the state because they have celebrity name recognition or unlimited funds and can take a seat,” she added.

The bill was transmitted to GOP Gov. Bill Lee on April 1. Lee returned it to the legislature without his signature on Wednesday, allowing the legislation to become law. But the residency requirement will not apply to Ortagus and other qualifying candidates this year.

“The bill was not signed into law before the April 7th filing deadline,” said Tennessee secretary of state spokesperson Julia Bruck. “The requirement does not apply retroactively to candidates who met the qualification deadline at noon on April 7.”

Casey Black, a spokeswoman for Lee, explained the governor’s decision in a statement to CNN, saying, “We feel the voters are best able to determine who should represent them in Congress.”

Opponents of the new Tennessee law say it runs afoul of the US Constitution, which requires that members of the House live in the state they represent by the time they are elected, not for 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 “blatantly violates” Article I of the Constitution “because the Constitution delineates the only qualifications necessary to serve as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.”

Another obstacle for Ortagus

While Ortagus looks like she will prevail against those contesting her candidacy over her brief residency in Tennessee, she now must fight against others challenging her bona fides as a Republican.

The state GOP provisionally removed her name from the 5th District primary ballot, along with Starbuck’s and candidate Baxter Lee’s, in response to challenges by party activists concerned about their credentials. Chuck Grimes, a member of the Tennessee GOP state executive committee, said that there are “different reasons” a party official might challenge a candidate but “most often” it is because a candidate is “known or assumed” to have not voted in at least three of the last four Republican primaries.

The 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 GOP’s executive committee will vote by April 21 on whether to restore their names.

Two people close to Ortagus said several supporters vouch for her in the coming days. One of those people said Trump should count among her vouchers due to his endorsement and stature inside the Republican Party.

“My expectation is that the state party will ultimately certify her,” this person said.

Ortagus has her supporters, including her ex-boss, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other high-profile Republicans. She said in a statement that she had raised nearly $600,000 in the first six weeks of her campaign.

Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN that Ortagus “represents the future of the party.”

“She’s a veteran, understands the world, sort of would be (Vladimir) Putin’s worst nightmare,” the South Carolina Republican said. “She’d be an articulate spokesman on American First foreign policy.”

The twin moves by legislators and party officials underscore the widespread antipathy among Tennessee Republicans for Trump’s chosen candidate in the new 5th District, a longtime Democratic bastion anchored in Nashville that now takes in more conservative suburbs after 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 state director for the conservative activist group Americans for Prosperity.

An Ortagus spokesperson criticized “elected officials calling in favors for their friends.”

Starbuck said his GOP bona fides were not in doubt.

“Some opponents are trying to use this process against me, hoping to fool the (state executive committee) into removing a top polling Republican — me,” he said in a statement.

Starbuck has said that the state legislators initially intended to remove both him and Ortagus from the ballot but that the new requirement won’t apply to him since he previously rented in Tennessee before buying his home. Niceley, the bill’s sponsor, is reportedly a supporter of Harwell.

“There was no question for us that that was the intention: to try to clear the path for somebody that he wanted to win,” Starbuck told CNN. “If you have to pass a bill to try to get rid of somebody through means like this, then you know they can’t beat us on their own.”

Niceley, Harwell and state GOP Chairman Scott Golden did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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