Former congressional candidate Robby Starbuck is taking the Tennessee GOP to court for booting him from the 5th District primary ballot last month.
Republican officials in the state used "secret and irregular means to prevent a FREE and FAIR election" through an unconstitutional “camouflaged residency requirement," he alleged, asking the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee to intervene and put him back on the ballot.
"This is not communist Cuba, where my family escaped from. In America, the party doesn’t get to just hand-pick their buddies —the PEOPLE get to choose the candidate they want on Election Day," Starbuck proclaimed in a press release. "This lawsuit is a testing point — and hopefully a turning point — that could end this type of backroom politics that should have gone out of style decades ago."
WHY TENNESSEE’S NEW RESIDENCY REQUIREMENT FOR CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATES IS BLATANTLY UNCONSTITUTIONAL
In a text message exchange between a party member and a State Executive Committee official reviewed by the Washington Examiner, the official claimed she voted to bar him from the race because of the residency law.
"I voted because of the new state residency law. [Ortagus] nor Starbuck met the new law. And Lee had voted for a Democrat," the official said in the text.
Starbuck, who gained prominence for his filmmaking career, maintains a large social media presence in conservative circles. Last month, the state committee moved to kick Starbuck, Trump-backed Morgan Ortagus, and businessman Baxter Lee from the primary ballot after determining none qualified as a “bona fide” Republican.
While Starbuck did not comply with a bylaw requiring candidates to vote in three of the past four Republican primaries, he met the alternative vouching requirement and secured the necessary supportive letters from party officials, the suit contends.
"Based on the TRP’s early statements about its standards and process, it was apparently making them up as it went along," the lawsuit claims. "The TRP’s decision to disqualify Mr. Starbuck is essentially a camouflaged residency requirement, which it arrives at by a contorted, arbitrary application of its authority to limit primary candidates to bona fide party members."
There hasn't been an "official statement by the TRP of a reasoned basis for its decision," but an informal explanation he received was SB 2616, a law enacted last month without Republican Gov. Bill Lee's signature, Starbuck claimed. The bill requires congressional contenders to reside in the state for three years to qualify for primaries. The law is not in effect for this election cycle, but Starbuck would meet those requirements, according to the suit.
Starbuck cited a lawsuit filed on behalf of Ortagus alleging that the bill is unconstitutional because it violates the Qualifications Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which lists "fixed and exclusive qualifications" for congressional contenders. Congress and others cannot supplant the list, the Supreme Court has determined.
His lawsuit also referenced a previous case in which laws imposing residency requirements were stricken by the high court, arguing the bylaws amounted to a "camouflaged residency requirement" and violated the Qualifications Clause.
Additionally, the suit highlights "the effect of the TRP’s disqualifications was to clear a path" for Beth Harwell, former chairwoman of the Tennessee GOP and former speaker of the Tennessee House. SB 2616 was advanced in the legislature by state Sen. Frank S. Niceley, whom the suit described as a friend of Harwell.
"A law advanced by Sen. Frank S. Niceley, who has made no secret of his desire to use this new law to help the candidacy of Ms. Harwell, his friend, and block Mr. Starbuck and Ms. Ortagus from the election because he considers them 'carpetbaggers.' But the law in question is not even in effect for this election cycle, begging the question of what, exactly, motivated the TRP’s decision, which is either arbitrary at best, or deliberately rigged to benefit a party insider, at worst," the lawsuit continues.
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The Washington Examiner reached out to the Tennessee GOP.
The primary race is currently slated for Aug. 4. With Starbuck, Ortagus, and Lee removed from the race, there are still at least nine candidates left, including Harwell and Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles. The seat had been held by Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, who is not pursuing reelection. State Republicans redrew district lines to ensure it would be more favorable to the party.