Who Is Morgan Ortagus?
When Former President Donald Trump endorses a congressional candidate, it’s always interesting to see who cheers. In the case of Morgan Ortagus, former spokeswoman for then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and now candidate for the newly-redrawn Tennessee congressional District 5, congratulations came from Kelly Craft, the once-Bush appointee to the United Nations for U.S. engagement in Africa, and Russia hawk Ryan Tully.
Notably missing: any native Tennesseans, save Quincy McKnight, who recently withdrew his Republican bid for the same race. (McKnight, whose prior political aspirations earned him a third of the vote in the three-way Republican primary for a state senate seat, caught a lot of heat for his Twitter swipe at Don Lemon’s sexuality on January 6.)
Ortagus, who announced her candidacy on February 7, was already getting flack from a handful conservatives in late January after she earned the coveted Trump endorsement. After all, her wedding was officiated by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and for the 2016 Republican primary she volunteered for none other than Jeb Bush (please clap). Twitter personality Daniel Bostic has dedicated a running thread to Ortagus’s other noteworthy accomplishments.
But for Tennessee conservatives, the issue that is more concerning than choosing the femme fatale of the Supreme Court for her wedding officiant is the question of Ortagus’s loyalties. The native of the Sunshine State and former Miss Florida Citrus moved to Nashville only one year ago. Doubt that the woman who just rolled up from the swamp could understand what kind of policies are best for the Volunteer State, despite professing to “love Tennessee,” is real.
Nashville, a central piece of District 5, brings in a lot of transplants, as all cities do. But even in Davidson County, the largest concentrated democratic territory in the state save Steve Cohen’s Memphis, which has voted solidly blue for decades, local loyalties are deep. After Jim Cooper had served as its U.S. representative for nearly two decades, the city of Nashville elected his brother, John Cooper, as its mayor in 2019.
Now that the district map has been redrawn, the region Ortagus hopes to represent includes not just Davidson but half of conservative-stronghold Williamson County, as well as rural Lewis, Maury, and Marshall counties. Some Tennesseans, myself included, are skeptical the redrawn map will actually do good for Republicans in the long run, as it amounts to spreading your rotten apples across a handful of baskets. Regardless, Ortagus seems content to assume her Trump endorsement, and calling herself an “America First” candidate, will be enough to win these rural counties. She may be right.
But Ortagus’s track record of Cold War-era foreign policy positions make her about as “America First” as her 2016 endorsement choice. Her service to the blob extends as far back as the George W. Bush administration, first as a public affairs officer at the United States Agency for International Development under the younger Bush, and then as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Department of Treasury under Obama, covering North Africa and the Middle East (yes, that’s a real job). She returned to the private sector for a few years, working as a global relationship manager for Asia, the Middle East, and Africa at Standard Chartered Bank.
Prior to being selected as State Department spokeswoman by Pompeo in 2019, Ortagus was a vocal critic of Trump’s “isolationist” foreign policy. Since 2021, she has criticized the Biden administration on similar grounds, condemning him for pursuing diplomacy, for his Afghanistan withdrawal, and for not being pro-Israel enough (she was also endorsed by David Friedman).
One thing that can be said for Ortagus: She’s politically savvy. She has hired Republican campaign strategist Ward Baker (my husband prefers Baker’s local call sign, “McConnell’s pitbull”), who was behind the successful campaign to get Bill Hagerty into the Senate in 2020 and Marsha Blackburn in 2018. Baker’s own loyalties to Republican values are loose, at best, but he certainly knows how to play ball.
Moreover, Ortagus’s only serious opponent so far is Robby Starbuck, the filmmaker and California native. Starbuck has lived in Tennessee for two and a half years, making him only marginally more in tune with the local color than Ortagus. While he seems to have the support of many Republican grassroots leaders in Williamson County, and a couple of national endorsements, including from Rand Paul and Candice Owens, beating a Trump-endorsed candidate has become quite the uphill battle.
Tennessee’s Republican Party requires potential candidates to have either voted in three of the last four Republican primaries, or to have their status vouched for by other Republicans in the district they seek to represent. For both Ortagus and Starbuck, pursuing the latter strategy, they’ll need their status as Republicans to be approved by a majority in a specially assembled committee of the Tennessee Republican Party State Executive Committee. The deadline for qualifying for the GOP primary ballot is August 2022.
“I’ve never backed down from a fight,” Ortagus says. For foreign policy realists, that’s precisely the concern.