Apr 21, 2022 - Politics

District 5 candidates spar with state GOP

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Candidates booted off the Republican primary ballot for Tennessee's 5th congressional district reacted forcefully, suggesting a court battle could be on the horizon.

  • The state party removed Morgan Ortagus, Robby Starbuck and Baxter Lee from the ballot in a Tuesday vote.

Why it matters: The newly redrawn District 5 is expected to flip to a safe Republican seat in November. The debate over the field could foreshadow a particularly intense campaign season.

Between the lines: State lawmakers tried to put their thumb on the scale with legislation setting a three-year residency requirement that would have put Ortagus, a recent transplant who secured former President Trump's endorsement, out of contention.

  • Gov. Bill Lee blunted that effort last week by returning the bill after Ortagus had already qualified for the ballot.
  • The state GOP's decision kept Ortagus off the ballot anyway.

The intrigue: Starbuck tweeted his campaign would fight the decision and predicted he would win in court. Baxter Lee told followers to "stay tuned."

  • Ortagus said in a statement that "party insiders … do not seem to share my commitment to President Trump's America First policies." She said her team was considering its options.

Context: State parties have occasionally removed candidates from ballots.

  • A federal appeals court upheld the Tennessee Democratic Party's 2008 decision to remove a state senator as the nominee in her race, per the Tennessee Journal.

State of play: Ortagus slammed the residency bill sponsor, state Sen. Frank Niceley, for "repeated anti-Semitic rhetoric" after he was quoted in an NBC article saying he didn't think Trump cared about her candidacy.

  • "I think Jared Kushner — he's Jewish, she's Jewish — I think Jared will be upset. Ivanka will be upset. I don't think Trump cares," Niceley said.
  • Niceley later issued a statement saying a "fake news reporter" took his comments "out of context," and that "attempting to construe my off-hand comments about the Trump family as antisemitism is unfair and inaccurate."

What she's saying: "I will condemn anyone who traffics in this hate-mongering," Ortagus said. "Senator Niceley's repulsive words could not be more clear in disparaging the Jewish people. This racism cannot stand."

Flashback: Niceley faced criticism last week after mentioning Adolf Hitler during a debate over homelessness.


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