A bill requiring Tennessee candidates seeking election to the U.S. House of Representatives or Senate to have voted in the state for the last three elections became law without Governor Bill Lee’s signature.
The timing permits former State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus to continue her campaign in the state’s 5th congressional district and ends speculation she would have been disqualified.
Senate Bill 2616 returned to the state Senate on April 13 having been neither signed nor vetoed by Lee. The policy was passed in late February in the senate and the again by state’s House in late March.
Because the bill became law after the filing deadline, Ortagus’s 2022 can continue even though she has not resided in Tennessee for the last three years.
“The requirement does not apply retroactively to candidates who met the qualification deadline at noon on April 7,” Julia Bruck, spokesperson for Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, told AP News.
The residency requirement is the same standard required for individuals seeking to serve as state Representatives or state Senators.
A spokesperson for the governor said in a statement said Lee chose not to sign the bill in order to defer to Tennesseeans.
“We feel the voters are best able to determine who should represent them in Congress,” said spokesperson Casey Black.
Those in favor of SB 2616 said the measure prevents carpetbaggers or out-of-state residents who relocate in order to win important political offices, but may be unfamiliar with the area, from entering primary races.
Some legal experts have questioned the law’s constitutionality. Under the Constitution, there is no residency requirement for those seeking federal office.
After the measure was passed by the legislature, supporters of Ortagus sued the state to prevent the measure from becoming law.
The Republican primary for the Nashville federal congressional seat will take place on Aug. 4, 2022.
In addition to Ortagus, candidates include small business owner Baxter Lee, former speaker of the state House Beth Harwell, educator Natisha Brooks, retired Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead and music video producer Robby Starbuck.
Some officials are reportedly still disputing which candidates are eligible for the primary.
State Senator Frank Niceley, who sponsored SB 2616, told the Tennessee Star on April 13, “Robby Starbuck and Morgan Ortagus were off the Republican primary ballot as soon their bona fides were challenged before the TN GOP by bona fide Republicans in the 5th district.”
“Those challenges were made well before the April 7 petition filing deadline,” he said. “In addition, meeting that filing deadline does not mean you’re a qualified candidate. The SEC members would need to vote to put them back on the ballot in order for them to be qualified. The Secretary of State and the governor have no control over what the SEC votes to do.”
Under the Tennessee Republican Party rules, candidates need to be considered “bona fide” Republicans to be put on the ballot, either by having voted in three of the last four statewide primaries or having someone vouch for them.
The 5th congressional district has become the site of a contentious campaign as Republicans seek to flip the seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat.