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Tennessee GOP kicks Trump-backed candidate Morgan Ortagus off congressional primary ballot

Tennessee's Republican Party kicked off three candidates from the primary ballot for the state's 5th Congressional District on Tuesday night, including one endorsed by former President Donald Trump.  

Former state department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus was taken off the ballot along with Republican candidates Robby Starbuck and Baxter Lee. Trump endorsed Ortagus in January. 

FILE: State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus is seen during a press conference at the State Department in Washington, DC on June 24, 2020. MANDEL NGAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The party voted to remove these three candidates from the ballot because they say they had not satisfied the party's membership requirements for candidacy. Party bylaws require candidates to have voted in at least three of the last four statewide Republican primaries.

A copy of Ortagus' voting record obtained from the Tennessee secretary of state's office shows no voting history for her in the state. It also showed a registration date of November 29, 2021. However, there has been no statewide election held in Tennessee since Ortagus moved to Tennessee. The next statewide election is May 3.

Her campaign argued in a memo that her votes in three recent Republican statewide primaries as a registered voter in New York in 2012 and 2016 and in Washington, D.C., in 2020 fulfill the bylaw requirement. The campaign stated that there were no contested GOP primaries in New York in 2014 and 2018. 

Tennessee Republican Party Chair Scott Golden has said that candidates can carry over their voting records from other states but that votes in 2012 would not count, according to an interview with Just The News.

CBS News has also requested Starbuck's and Lee's Tennessee voting records.

In a statement, Ortagus said her team is "evaluating the options before us" and that she is "deeply disappointed" by the decision.

"I'm a bonafide Republican by their standards, and frankly, by any metric. I'm further disappointed that the party insiders at the Tennessee Republican Party do not seem to share my commitment to President Trump's America First policies," Ortagus wrote. 

Starbuck, a filmmaker backed by Republican Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn, blasted the process and said the party "declared war on TN voters yesterday."

"Sadly in Tennessee candidates are NOT elected, they're SELECTED by a tiny group of establishment RINO hacks. We'll fight this with every ounce of fight we have," he tweeted

The move comes after the Tennessee Legislature passed a bill that would require federal candidates to have resided in the state for at least three years. Ortagus moved to Nashville from Washington D.C. in 2021. 

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, allowed the bill to become law without his signature. But because it became law after a candidate filing deadline, state officials said it did not apply retroactively. 

Tennessee State Senator Frank Niceley led the passage of this legislation, which aimed to kick Ortagus off the ballot. He is backing another candidate in the race, former state House Speaker Beth Harwell. 

In an interview with NBC News, Niceley said only Jewish members of Trump's family cared about Ortagus' candidacy. Ortagus converted to Judaism while she was stationed in Baghadad, according to Jewish Insider. 

"I don't think Trump cares one way or the other. 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," he told NBC News.

Earlier this month, Niceley invoked Adolf Hitler in a message about homeless people during a floor speech, holding up Hitler as an example of a homeless person who turned his life around. 

"Anti-Semitism is the oldest and one of the most vile forms of hatred on this earth, and Senator Niceley should be ashamed of his repeated anti-Semitic rhetoric," Ortagus said in a statement.  "I am incredibly proud to call myself a part of the Jewish people, and I have always called out anti-Semitism when I see it in all of its forms. I will condemn anyone who traffics in this hate-mongering."

A contact for Trump had not yet responded for comment about his backed candidate being taken off the ballot. Tennessee's Republican Party had also not yet responded for comment.

Tennessee's 5th District was left open by longtime House Democrat Jim Cooper, after redistricting in the state carved up the Nashville area seat to make it more solidly Republican. 

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