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Tennessee Primary Race Heats Up

After Trump-backed Morgan Ortagus and two others failed to qualify for the GOP ballot, the remaining frontrunners weigh in.
Tennessee Primary Race Heats Up

The Republican party in Tennessee has been put under the spotlight recently after it declined to approve three potential candidates for the 5th congressional district for the primary ballot, including Trump-backed Morgan Ortagus.

On April 19, Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden confirmed that Morgan Ortagus, Robby Starbuck, and Baxter Lee did not qualify to be candidates for the GOP nomination in the district, after a vote by a select committee of the State Executive Committee of the Tennessee Republican Party.

Meanwhile, eyes in the district have turned to Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles and former Speaker of the Tennessee State House of Representatives Beth Harwell as the leading candidates in the race to the August 4 primary.

Originally from Norristown, Pennsylvania, Harwell has been a longtime fixture in Tennessee politics since she first ran for public office in 1986 while teaching part time at Belmont University. While her first campaign to represent the Democratic district encompassing Nashville failed, she won election to the same state House seat two years later, in 1988. She would remain in the seat until 2018.

Since her first election to the Tennessee General Assembly, Harwell worked as the state co-chair for the John McCain presidential campaign in 2008, was elected to serve as the first female speaker of the House in Tennessee from 2011 to 2018, and in 2017 ran unsuccessfully in the Republican gubernatorial primary against now-Governor Bill Lee. She also weighed a U.S. Senate race in 2006. In the 2012 presidential election, she endorsed Mitt Romney.

In an interview, Harwell said her experience in the legislature and her background in education make her the most qualified candidate for the 5th congressional district.

“I have a working knowledge of the legislative process from my time in the general assembly. I know procedure, which would be beneficial in Congress,” Harwell told The American Conservative. “I’m also a teacher, that’s my first passion, and I have a strong knowledge of our nation’s history, and I think that’s a distinction between myself and my opponent”—Ogles, that is.

In the Tennessee General Assembly, Harwell focused on welfare reform, crime, tax cuts, and education. She is also on the record in favor of legalizing medical marijuana in Tennessee.

“When I was in the general assembly, we increased teachers salaries and promoted teachers that did a good job, and that improved our public school system,” said Harwell, who called herself “a proud product of the public schools.”

While she believes Covid has set the state back about two years in terms of education improvement, she said she supports Governor Lee’s initiative with Hillsdale College to back 50 new charter schools in the state. She was a vocal opponent of the Common Core curriculum and pushed for legislation which allowed more students to attend charter schools in Tennessee.

“As many options as parents have for their children is a good thing,” she said.

***

Andy Ogles picked up the phone on the first ring. Elected mayor of Maury County in 2018, the man became a bit of a local hero in the spring of 2020 for his opposition to Covid-related shutdowns. This writer was staying with her parents in a neighboring county at the time, and the difference between the two counties was noticeable.

“When most of the country was shutting down and mandates were being enforced, I refused to comply on behalf of the more than 100,000 residents of Maury County, on behalf of their freedom,” Ogles told The American Conservative. 

Immediately south of Ogles’ birthplace of Williamson County, Maury and most of Williamson are included in the newly redrawn 5th district, along with Lewis, Marshall, half of Wilson, and the southern and eastern portions of deeply blue Davidson county, which encompasses Nashville. Under Ogles’ leadership, Maury was one of only a handful of Tennessee counties which did not mandate masking indoors in the spring of 2020, when Governor Bill Lee encouraged but did not require Tennessee counties to do so. Williamson, which prides itself on being one of the most conservative counties in the nation, did mandate indoor masking that spring.

Last fall, Ogles campaigned for hospital employees in Maury to be given religious exemptions from employer-enforced vaccine mandates, which hospitals have since allowed.

“They have allowed religious exemptions because I joined the fight,” Ogles said. “I’m not anti-mask, I’m not anti-vaccine, but I am pro-freedom, in a time when the governments and states have lost their ever-loving mind. This is a free country. OSHA and these other agencies are out of control, and Congress needs to rein them in. Any power that is not enumerated in the Constitution for the federal government should be returned to the states.”

In the months following March 2020, Ogles said he travelled the state of Tennessee to encourage other mayors and county officials to follow his lead. Despite receiving death threats for his stance, according to Ogles, he said “courage is contagious,” and his work in Maury had a ripple effect across the state as other mayors and local officials stood up against further Covid-19 mandates.

“It was the right thing to do and I stood in the gap and I did it and I never looked back.”

Ogles said this is a key factor distinguishing him from the other candidates.

“When you look at everyone in the race, over the last two years, I was the only one who stood up and fought,” Ogles said. “I refused to shut down Maury County. We had our county fairs, plural. We had our concerts. Every worker was essential. So I have a proven track record. There are going to be a lot of people in this race who talk about fighting against government, yet none of them have that track record. It’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to do it, and I’ve been doing it under pressure.”

***

Both Ogles and Harwell were careful to make one distinction: Morgan Ortagus, Robby Starbuck, and Baxter Lee were not “removed” from the GOP ballot; they were never on it.

The three would-be candidates failed to receive approval from the party committee on the April 9 deadline due to challenges to their status as bona fide Republicans. The Tennessee Republican Party bylaws define this qualification for candidacy as “any individual who is actively involved in the Tennessee Republican Party, his County Republican Party, or any recognized auxiliary…resides and is registered to vote in said county; and either…has voted in at least three (3) of the four (4) most recent Statewide Republican primary elections; or…who is vouched for in writing (to the satisfaction of the decision makers defined herein) as a bona fide Republican.” The bylaws also note that the political committee which decides a candidate’s eligibility “may require additional verification that said individual is indeed a bona fide Republican.”

Ortagus, who registered to vote in Tennessee in November 2021, has never voted in a Tennessee election. Starbuck had also not voted in a Republican primary in the state prior to April 2022, though he registered to vote in Tennessee in July 2019, the same year he moved to the state from California. Lee voted in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

Ortagus, Starbuck, and Lee each had seven days to appeal the decision before the State Executive Committee (SEC) sent its final list of qualified candidates to the Tennessee Secretary of State on April 21. On April 19, a 17 member committee of the SEC denied those appeals. According to the Tennessee Star, 13 members voted to reject Starbuck and Ortagus in their respective votes, while 10 voted to reject Lee.

“Every other public office in Tennessee has some sort of residency requirement,” Ogles said, explaining as an example that despite having been born, raised, married, and had his kids in Williamson County, he would have to move back to the county and reside in it in order to run for county mayor there. “There’s precedent for this in Tennessee.”

Many in Tennessee believe there is also constitutional grounding for the state legislature’s recent law requiring U.S. House candidates to have lived in the state and county they hope to represent for three years prior to their election. Ogles said there is precedent, at the least, for parties choosing who is and is not on their ballot.

“You may have an opinion as to if these folks should have been removed, but there is precedent for it,” he said.

Harwell also affirmed this.

“It was the SEC’s decision, I didn’t call or talk to any of them about it,” she said. “I frankly think they just followed their bylaws. This is not the first time this has happened.”

Shortly after the SEC’s decision, Republican state senator Frank Niceley implied Ortagus’s Trump endorsement was a product of Jared Kushner’s influence, saying Trump himself wouldn’t care that Ortagus did not make it to the ballot. Ortagus called Niceley’s comments anti-Semitic. Harwell jumped to defend Ortagus, tweeting that “Antisemitism is wrong and there’s no place for that in American politics. I’m a strong supporter of Israel and I’ve always stood by our Jewish friends.”

Ortagus still encouraged her Twitter followers to vote early on April 28, but her website has been stripped of all campaign material, save a memo on the homepage thanking Tennesseans for their support. Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Starbuck, who was endorsed by Rand Paul, has continued to campaign, using the circumstances to cast himself as a political outsider. After previously threatening a lawsuit if his status was challenged, Starbuck wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that he has sued the Tennessee GOP in federal court over his “illegal removal” from the ballot.

“I’m not going to stop fighting until our voters in Tennessee have every choice on their ballot in this election,” he tweeted. “A secret, illegal backroom vote should not overrule our voters. Freedom matters!”

It is unclear if he will pursue an independent campaign if he is unable to get his name on the GOP ticket. Starbuck’s team did not respond to The American Conservative‘s request for comment.

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