NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Republican officials have removed three congressional hopefuls from the GOP primary ballot, including one candidate backed by former President Donald Trump.
The late Tuesday night decision by the Tennessee Republican Party was a long awaited result of months of debate over Morgan Ortagus, Trump's former State Department spokesperson, entering Nashville's open 5th Congressional District race.
Even with Trump's endorsement, some Republicans criticized the selection after pointing out that she had just recently moved to the state and did not know the region or its voters.
Tennessee’s Republican-controlled Legislature had sought to nudge Ortagus and others off the ballot by imposing residency requirements on most U.S. House and Senate candidates. However, that attempt fizzled after the state's election office told The Associated Press the legislation — which Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee allowed to go into effect without his signature earlier this month — would not apply retroactively to candidates who had already met the qualifications.
That left the decision up to the state Republican Party, who had received challenges over the voting records of Ortagus, as well as video producer Robby Starbuck and small business owner Baxter Lee. Party officials had until Thursday to decide whether to keep the candidates on the August primary ballot. Tennessee GOP chairman Scott Golden confirmed the three were removed in a text to the AP on Wednesday.
In a statement, Ortagus said she was “deeply disappointed” in the GOP executive committee's decision.
"As I have said all along, I believe that voters in Middle Tennessee should pick their representative — not establishment party insiders,” she said. “Our team is evaluating the options before us.”
Trump has not responded to the state party's move. He had announced his endorsement via email in January, before Ortagus had officially filed to run, saying she would have his “Complete and Total Endorsement."
Meanwhile, Starbuck tweeted out a short video with dark music that simply said “war” shortly after the party's decision was revealed.
“In Cuba they have sham elections where the party decides which candidates are allowed to run. That’s what we have in Tennessee now thanks to the State Executive Committee,” he later said in a Wednesday statement. “My family didn’t come from Cuba just to watch America become Cuba. Not without a fight. Freedom matters.”
In a longer statement posted Wednesday, Starbuck promised to use “all available legal options to fight this disgusting outcome" and said he believed his campaign would win in court.
Chip Saltsman, Baxter Lee's campaign manager, described the decision a “headscratcher” and said Baxter Lee was a Republican “through and through.”
Saltsman said Baxter Lee was kicked off the ballot because the candidate had not voted in three of the last four Tennessee primary elections. However, Saltsman pointed out that Lee had voted in 10 of the last 12 GOP primaries while giving nearly $100,000 to Republican candidates.
Meanwhile, Republican state Sen. Frank Niceley — they key sponsor of the legislation that sought to boot Ortagus and others off the ballot — told NBC News that only Jewish members of Trump's family will care about Ortagus getting kicked out of the primary. Ortagus is Jewish.
“I don’t think Trump cares one way or the other,” Niceley said, who is supporting former House Speaker Beth Harwell in the open congressional race. “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 had recently sparked national criticism after seemingly praising Adolf Hitler on the Senate floor while discussing a homelessness bill.
Ortagus responded that Niceley should be “ashamed of his repeated anti-Semitic rhetoric.”
“I will condemn anyone who traffics in this hate-mongering,” she said in a statement. “Senator Niceley’s repulsive words could not be more clear in disparaging the Jewish people. This racism cannot stand.”
Niceley claimed his words were taken out of context.
"Attempting to construe my off-hand comments about the Trump family as antisemitism is unfair and inaccurate,” he said Wednesday.
The deep Republican field for the 5th District now includes Harwell, Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles and retired National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead.
The flurry of candidates have set their sights on Tennessee’s freshly drawn 5th District after Republican redistricting this year. The seat became open after Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper announced he would not seek reelection rather than run in a district that carved up Nashville, favoring Republicans in each of the three seats and making it impossible for him to win any of them, in his view.
On the Democratic side, state Sen. Heidi Campbell is seeking the 5th District seat.