Inside the GOP effort to scrub a Trump-backed candidate from Tennessee's ballot

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It wasn’t long after former President Donald Trump announced his endorsement for Morgan Ortagus in Tennessee’s newly drawn 5th Congressional District that a number of local Republicans began plotting how to nuke her candidacy.

Three months later, a group of Tennessee GOP officials voted in secret at a secure location to do just that, blocking the former State Department spokeswoman and two others from the August primary ballot.

National GOP figures and local activists upset by the outcome have criticized the process as underhanded and corrupt, while state party officials and Tennessee Republicans have defended the move — the strongest pushback to one of Trump’s primary picks thus far — as simply following its own rules. Party officials overwhelmingly voted to end her candidacy, even as interviews with more than a dozen stakeholders, officials and candidates, many of whom professed their full support for the former president, revealed a split over Trump’s effort to influence the race.

“I heard this over and over: ‘Well, I’m all for Trump, but he doesn’t need to be telling us who the hell to vote for,” said one member of the state party’s executive committee, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the vote. “This is Tennessee … Don’t tell me what the hell I gotta do.”

Scores of Trump’s other endorsements in GOP primaries across the country have come under scrutiny as primaries kick off in earnest this month. Trump has been eager to cement his continued influence over the party by endorsing early and often, though some Republicans have indicated they wish the former president would stay out of contested primaries or feel he has received bad advice on his picks.

In Pennsylvania, Trump allies and local GOP officials have questioned his endorsement of Mehmet Oz in the Senate primary, pointing to Oz’s limited history in the state and what they see as a lack of conservative bona fides. In Ohio, more than 30 Republicans who served as Trump delegates in 2016 called on the former president to “reconsider” his endorsement of GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance, calling that endorsement a “betrayal.” (Vance won that primary Tuesday by more than eight points.)

But nowhere have Republicans gone farther in pushing back on Trump’s endorsement than in Tennessee.

“I’m seeing a growing sense among people, not just in this situation, of wishing Trump would just leave a lot of these races alone,” the state executive committee member said. “They don’t see how that’s benefitting him or the party. Some of the people who feel this way are die-hard pro-Trump people.”

A representative for Trump did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, Republican National Committee senior adviser Richard Walters said the committee “had no involvement with the recent action taken by the Tennessee Republican Party.”

'Cut and dry from the beginning'

In the Nashville-area district, insiders said the decision to boot Ortagus had less to do with any rebuke of Trump as it was to send a message to anyone who thinks they can move to the fast-growing city and immediately launch a congressional bid.

A Republican operative in the state, who requested anonymity to speak candidly on the effort, said the plan initially centered on pursuing a residency requirement bill that could have, if enacted before the April 7 filing deadline, stopped her candidacy in its tracks.

The legislation, which passed both branches of the statehouse with overwhelming support, was for messaging purposes, this Republican said, adding that its advancing through the statehouse helped drive conversation about how Ortagus only recently moved to the state. That bill, now law, requires congressional candidates to live in the state for three years to qualify for primary ballots, but would not have had an effect on this year’s ballot, according to the secretary of state’s office.

At the same time, rumors swirled in local GOP circles that Trump would not care if Ortagus’ bid was thwarted before voters had the chance to weigh in on her candidacy. State Sen. Frank Niceley, who spearheaded the legislation, suggested in an interview with NBC News that only Jewish members of Trump’s family cared for Ortagus’ bid, since she is Jewish — earning condemnation from Ortagus and others.

Meanwhile, Republicans pursued the ultimately successful challenge to her candidacy through the state party’s bylaws.

Members of the Tennessee Republican Party’s executive committee argued it was simply enforcing its rules, which include a requirement that candidates cast ballots in at least three of four Republican primaries. The state GOP has removed dozens of candidates in recent years upon their candidacies being challenged by local Republicans.

Still, fearful of potential threats to their safety, committee members cast their final ballots upholding the candidate’s removal from the primary race in secret at a secure location in mid-April. They reviewed documentation provided by each of the three challenged candidates — Ortagus, right-wing influencer Robby Starbuck, and local Republican Baxter Lee — to back up their case for why they should be allowed on the ballot.

Most weren’t swayed, and the decision was quick and overwhelming. The SEC voted 13-3 to keep Ortagus and Starbuck off the ballot, and 10-6 against Lee, the SEC voting member told NBC News.

“There were certain people in there [for whom the decision] was cut and dry from the beginning,” the SEC member said. “I’m not sure if they gave everybody — how can I put this — much [of] a fair evaluation. Maybe they were right. Maybe that was so cut and dry that these people didn’t deserve it.”

Backlash was swift. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted it was “Exhibit A of political corruption and good ol' boy politics” while Trump’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr. posted, “voters should decide elections, NOT politicians making backroom deals.” Starbuck himself called the SEC “a tiny group of establishment RINO hacks,” shorthand for the pejorative “Republicans in name only.”

In a statement, Ortagus said that while she won’t be in Congress, she will “continue to fight for my country and for Tennessee conservative values,” calling the state officials responsible for her removal “establishment party insiders.”

At a heated meeting of the Davidson County GOP last week, which featured SEC members answering questions from dismayed local Republicans, activists pressed the voting members on the decision, questioning why the state party wants “to say goodbye to all the voters, all this momentum” and thinks “that you’re better than the voter,” according to video of the meeting obtained by NBC News.

State executive committee members defended the decision as being totally by the book. Chase Montgomery, a member of the SEC who voted on the decision, told NBC News candidates were well aware they risked removal through the process if their records failed to meet the requirements of the party’s bylaws.

Members also pushed back on charges of being a “RINO” or “establishment” politicians, arguing that committee seats are elected positions and often filled by unpaid activists who, in many cases, previously served as delegates for Trump at the past two conventions.

“More than one group has called us a bunch of RINOs and establishment,” the first SEC member said. “This group is to the right of Attila the Hun.”

'Seems like crazy town'

While Ortagus has ended her candidacy and will not challenge the decision, that’s not the case for Starbuck, who moved to the 5th District in 2019 and is backed by pro-Trump influencers and some prominent lawmakers.

On Monday, he sued both the Tennessee GOP and the state in hopes of having his candidacy reinstated.

“I was simultaneously surprised and not surprised because I’ve definitely seen how some party figures have been very cold towards me,” he said in an interview, adding, “It’s still shocking because I’ve never seen a congressional race where the state party throws out a leading candidate for Congress, let alone two. It’s just crazy. It just seems like crazy town. Why piss off your own voters?”

However, Tennessee Republicans said they view a legal challenge as unlikely to overturn the decision because courts have deferred to political parties in such disputes. Moreover, they said, had they not voted to keep these candidates off the ballot, they risked lawsuits from past candidates they’ve booted under those same rules.

“It’s just a very, very rare case where the party had to flex and they flexed,” Thomsen Smith, a local Republican fundraiser, said. “And everyone’s like, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah. Just go learn.’”

According to Smith, donors are pleased by the removals.

As it stands, the GOP primary for the U.S. House seat features nine candidates. The existing 5th District is held by longtime Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat who announced his retirement after the Republican-held Legislature drew a district much more favorable to Republicans.

“We will not be dictated upon by Washington, D.C. The nationalization of our politics is extremely dangerous,” Luke Elliott, a local Republican activist, said in a statement, adding, “You will show us more respect. Let me be very clear: if you move to Nashville, you will follow our rules. Mr. President: I am pulling for you, but we did not ask for the help of your sly agents.”