NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A new rule imposing residency requirements on most U.S. House and Senate hopefuls won't achieve some Tennessee Republican lawmakers' goal of nudging at least one GOP candidate backed by President Donald Trump off the primary ballot, even as the governor allowed it to become law without signing it Wednesday.
That's because the filing deadline for candidates — including Morgan Ortagus — in a crowded, open Nashville congressional race came and went before the requirement became law, according to elections officials.
"The requirement does not apply retroactively to candidates who met the qualification deadline at noon on April 7," said Julia Bruck, spokesperson for Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee's spokesperson, Casey Black, explained the move not to sign the proposal, saying: "We feel the voters are best able to determine who should represent them in Congress."
Election officials' conclusion clears one roadblock for Ortagus to run, but it's not the last. A dozen Republicans are in the race after one didn't file on time with the party and another didn't have enough signatures.
Under Tennessee Republican Party rules, challenges in the Nashville congressional race have been filed over the voting records of Ortagus, small business owner Baxter Lee and video producer Robby Starbuck, according to state GOP chairman Scott Golden. Those will be settled by party officials by April 21, Golden said.
Meanwhile, the new state residency requirement had already drawn a lawsuit before it became law. Ortagus supporters sued, arguing that the state cannot impose stricter residency requirements than those outlined in the U.S. Constitution, which dictates that a congressional candidate be a citizen for at least seven years, at least 25 years old and an "inhabitant" of the state in which they want to be elected. The U.S. Supreme Court has previously determined that any requirement not explicitly outlined in the Constitution is out of bounds.
Under the new law, U.S. House and Senate candidates in primary elections are required to meet the same criteria imposed on state legislative candidates, who must be Tennessee residents for at least three years and residents of the county they'll represent for at least one year "immediately preceding the election."
Supporters argue the changes are needed to prevent transplants who don't know the area from securing key political seats. Specifically, lawmakers began seriously pursuing the topic after Trump announced his endorsement of Ortagus. The decision ruffled Republicans who point out that Ortagus not only recently moved to Nashville, but also Tennessee. Ortagus was a U.S. State Department spokesperson during the Trump administration.
The deep Republican field for the 5th District also includes former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles and retired National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead.
The flurry of candidates have set their sights on Tennessee's freshly drawn 5th District after Republican redistricting this year. The seat became open after Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper announced he would not seek reelection rather than run in a district that carved up Nashville, favoring Republicans in each of the three seats and making it impossible for him to win any of them, in his view.
On the Democratic side, state Sen. Heidi Campbell is seeking the 5th District seat. Another Democratic candidate didn't file with the party on time.
Meanwhile, the GOP intraparty jockeying is underway to determine whether Ortagus, Lee and Starbuck can be on the ballot.
State GOP rules say candidates need to have voted in three of the last four statewide primaries to be deemed "bona fide" Republicans, determined after someone files a challenge. But there also is a party process that lets others vouch for someone to be considered "bona fide" and remain on the ballot, which is determined in a vote by party officials.
In a statement Wednesday, Ortagus said, "I respect the rules and the process outlined by TNGOP, and I'm a bona fide Republican by their standards."