The Tennessee GOP removed a Trump-endorsed candidate from the ballot in the state’s 5th District primary on Tuesday, highlighting a rift between the former president and Republican leaders in the state.
The party’s State Executive Committee voted to bar Morgan Ortagus, who served as Donald Trump’s spokeswoman in the State Department, and two other people from competing in the primary, ruling that they failed to meet the definition of “bona fide” Republicans under the party’s bylaws.
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The Tennessee Republican Party requires that candidates be “actively involved” in the state or local GOP and have voted in three of the last four Republican primaries, although members can vouch to party leaders that a candidate failing to meet these requirements deserves to remain on the ballot.
Ortagus, who earned the endorsement of Trump before entering the race in February, framed the decision to bar her as a move by “party insiders” to undermine her “America First” candidacy.
"I'm a bonafide Republican by their standards, and frankly, by any metric," Ortagus said in a statement to the Tennessean. “As I have said all along, I believe that voters in Middle Tennessee should pick their representative — not establishment party insiders. Our team is evaluating the options before us."
Ortagus has rankled party leaders in the state who object to her running in the 5th District despite having only moved to Tennessee last year. Her entry into the race gave rise to tensions between the state GOP and Trump, whose influence over the Republican Party is being tested in primaries across the country. The former president has endorsed more than 100 GOP candidates on the ballot.
"I voted for Trump. I supported him," state Sen. Frank Niceley, a Tennessee Republican, told NBC News. "I’ll vote for Trump as long as he lives. But I don’t want him coming out here to tell me who to vote for."
Niceley spearheaded legislation widely viewed as targeting Ortagus that requires primary candidates to have lived in Tennessee for at least three years. The bill became law, except it took effect after the election's April 7 filing deadline, meaning Ortagus would have been able to compete in the primary had she not been kicked out by the Tennessee GOP.
The decision to remove Ortagus occurred amid rumors that Trump no longer cared whether she appeared on the ballot; however, a spokesman for Trump emphatically denied that Ortagus had lost the former president’s support.
"That is a dirty lie, which should not surprise anyone, given there are RINOs in Tennessee trying to quietly pull strings and illegally remove President Trump’s endorsed candidate, Morgan Ortagus, from the ballot," Taylor Budowich said, using the acronym for "Republicans in name only."
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Party leaders also barred Robby Starbuck, a California transplant who earned the endorsement of Republican Sen. Rand Paul, and local entrepreneur Baxter Lee from competing in the Aug. 4 primary.
Around a dozen candidates are vying to replace Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, who is retiring from the seat after it swung to the right following redistricting. Among the remaining candidates are Beth Harwell, a former speaker of the state House, Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, and Nashville lawyer Kurt Winstead.