The Tennesse Republican Party removed three candidates from the primary ballot for the 5th Congressional District.
Robby Starbuck, Morgan Ortagus and Baxter Lee were all disqualified from the upcoming primary after the party’s vote on April 19 that they did not meet its standards for “bonafide” Republicans.
Their candidacy was challenged earlier this month, triggering a vote by the State Election Committee.
According to the bylaws, a candidate is required to a have voted in three of the last four Republican primaries or have state Republicans vouch for them
“The idea that I am not a Republican is most offensive … because if I am not, who the hell is?” Starbuck said in an interview with Timcast.
Starbuck, a music video producer who moved to Tennessee from California, said he has been a registered Republican for his entire life and has only donated to Republican candidates. He said his “extensive track record” included the political events he and his wife have organized to support local Republican candidates.
The 33-year-old said he had 14 vouching letters affirming his status as a Republican, including statements from several county party chairs and the leader of the Nashville Young Republicans. He was also endorsed by U.S. Senator Rand Paul in 2021.
Starbuck largely attributed the Party’s vote to institutional corruption, believing that Republican leaders in that state would prefer a “controllable RINO,” he said.
In particular, he said Andrew Ogles — the Mayor of Maury County who entered the congressional race on March 22 — is an institutional favorite who could “fake being America First.”
He compares the Tennessee Republican Party’s vote to political corruption in Cuba, where his family originated before fleeing to America.
“In Cuba, they had the central committee,” Starbuck said, noting that that committee would select candidates and run “sham elections.”
He said that removing him from the ballot despite his numerous vouching letters could demoralize voters and likely have long-term consequences for the party. Since the committee’s vote became public, hundreds of his supporters have reached out to him to express their frustration and anger.
“[The] Tennessee Republican party will regret it for a long time,” he said. “Elections are supposed to be the will of the people…The Party’s action has disenfranchised their own voters.”
He said the SEC vote shows voters that the Party no longer shares their values.
When asked why he has gained such strong support in Tennessee, Starbuck said, “I’ve been willing to fight when other people won’t fight.”
Starbuck and his team are currently exploring “every legal option” while they consider how to proceed and that “one way or another” he would appear on the ballot so Tennesseans could vote for him.
Ortagus, a former spokesperson for the State Department who was endorsed by President Donald Trump, said in a statement that she was “deeply disappointed in the SEC’s decision.”
“I’m a bonafide Republican by their standards, and frankly, by any metric,” she said. “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.”
U.S. Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat, announced in 2021 that he would retire at the end of his term which opened the doors to a now crowded congressional race in the newly drawn 5th district. Cooper has held his office since 2003.
The district has been the epicenter of contentious legislation aimed at preventing candidates considered to not be deeply rooted or familiar with the state from being elected to federal office. The bill became law on April 13 without being signed by Governor Bill Lee.
There is no appeals or challenge process available to Starbuck, Ortagus, or Lee through the Tennessee Republican Party. However, the candidates could challenge the vote in court to get back on the ballot before the primaries or run as independents.
At the time of publication, the Republican Party of Tennessee did not provide a statement in response to Timcast’s request for comment. The article will be updated accordingly if and when a comment is received.