Three Tennessee candidates–Morgan Ortagus, Baxter Lee, and Robby Starbuck–in the race for U.S. Congress were removed from the Tennessee Republican Party’s primaries ballot because of their purported failures to adhere to the residency requirements and the frequency with which they voted in past primary elections.
According to the Tennessean, the Tennessee Republican Party on Tuesday approved the removal of three congressional candidates from the primary ballot for the brand-new Fifth Congressional District, including a Trump-backed candidate whose campaign upset some insiders within the state. Ortagus, Lee, and Starbuck were removed from the primaries ballot by the executive committee of the party, Tennessee Republican Chairman Scott Golden confirmed on Tuesday. Republican officials verified last week that formal challenges had been filed against the three candidates, which resulted in their removals according to the party's bylaws.
Although Ortagus and Lee voiced their concerns, they decided to go along with the committee's action. Robby Starbuck was the sole candidate who chose to contest the decision, launching a lawsuit to challenge his fellow members of the Tennessee GOP. Starbuck is represented by civil-rights lawyer Harmeet Dhillon. Additionally, leaks from NBC News confirm the Tennessee GOP executive committee's actions can not be on the right track.
“The same 24 hours where they kicked me off the ballot, the SEC [U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission] approved and amended one congressional candidate, who…did not have three out of four primaries, and who had only a couple of vouching letters,” Starbuck explained. “And that's it. It's for a U.S. congressional race, you know. So, it's the same office, different standards for him.”
The plot gets more complex. The views of the few who voted against removing Starbuck were also leaked, and it is clear that their opinions do not line up with the opinions of the statewide Republican body.
A tape then came out. Evidently, NBC was the first to know about it. One of the members of the Davidson GOP said to one of the SEC members, “Look I'm not going [to] say it: Robby has done more for the Republican Party than I ever have done, and certainly more than you do.”
Starbuck said, “And the fact that they're creating this discord within the party is absolutely terrible. You know, I'm talking about the fact that they also mentioned in that video that the young Republican chair from Nashville claimed that I've attracted more members and volunteers than any other person has in the history of the young Republicans. They changed from a small group of 16 to over 100 people engaged in every aspect of their lives, and the young Republican chairman says so, the only thing we've seen similar to that. And then the County party said the same thing: they never had as many volunteers or donors as they have now. And they're like, you're just, you know, putting all that in jeopardy because of whatever it is you guys decided in that secret meeting, and then you want to keep them off the ballot?”
Starbuck has receipts to show he's been living in the Fifth District since 2019 and has voted in three of the four primary elections. In addition to his lawsuit, Starbuck has protested the decisions and petitions filed by the executive committee, inquiring about the reasons behind their decision to disqualify.
Starbuck shared a text message from one member of the executive committee: “I voted because of the new state residency law. [Ortagus] nor Starbuck met the new law. And Lee had voted for a Democrat.”
Starbuck is also aware of comments that based on his previous employment in the entertainment business as a music-video director for specific rap groups, his work has not been in line with “Republican” values. “Then just like background wise, some of the things that we've heard since then have been that uh, you know, obviously the residency thing came into play, but also that some of the members considered things that are like just wildly inappropriate,” he added. “Some of them, um, were apparently watching music videos I made, and then decided I shouldn't have the status of a Republican. It's just ludicrous. Like do we want to lose forever as a party?”
Evidently. That's the story of “the “Big Tent” party. In Tennessee, the litmus and purity tests seem to be an unwritten rule. This loyalty to fossils who have made their way up the ranks of the party but done nothing to advance Republicanism beyond their own bubbles seems to be okay with them. However, while they are doubling down on their failures and ignoring the failings of others, the Tennessee GOP also undermines new faces that bring fresh enthusiasm and new recruits to the party. This is an excellent illustration of cutting off your nose to smear your face.
The Tennessee GOP is snatching defeat from a win, ya'll.
However, these “good ole boy” antics don't stop there. The first U.S. District Court judge who was assigned to the Starbuck lawsuit is Judge William L. Campbell Jr., who had to remove himself due to his mother being Tennessee Republican Party executive committee member Beth Campbell. Backroom electioneering at its highest. The new judge assigned is the Chief Justice for the Middle Tennessee District Court and is known for making his decisions according to the law.
“Everybody we've talked to says that he tends to be a stickler for procedure,” Starbuck explained. “So I'm thinking that he could examine this and see, it's similar to reading tea leaves to imagine he'll examine something similar to this and realize that they didn't follow the rules and procedures there, as they were required to inform me–oh I know, they were supposed to notify me with the two-day time frame by certified mail that I was entitled to two days to appeal the decision, but they didn't. However, I did appeal, and they did not respond to my appeal. This, along with the fact that there is evidence that SEC members making decisions on matters that aren't in the bylaws, could cause [the judge] to think: ‘What…precedent is this setting?’”
Whatever happens, however, it's the people who have supported, endorsed, and defended Starbuck who are being defrauded. Starbuck agrees. “Because it's quite clear, you're denying access to thousands of voters and you're allowing, [you] know some elected individuals to do this”, he explained. “I think it's enraging. You know, honestly, that a group of people would think that they should overrule voters.”
Without guidance from Starbuck, his supporters were able to contact those on the Tennessee Republican Party executive committee to air their displeasure. “SEC members have turned their phones off because of phone calls, which is kind of funny,” Starbuck declared. “This is just angry people looking up the SEC numbers. I kind of felt like it was not going to be helpful to us if we flooded them with thousands of calls, but apparently, they've gotten hundreds and hundreds of calls anyway.”
In the event that Democrats and Republicans are working hard to influence the outcome of the midterm elections, each party is going to experience an unexpected shock.